Mountain States

New Report Provides Facts on Water Use and Fracking in the West

One of the many tired arguments from anti-fracking activists is that hydraulic fracturing consumes excessive quantities of water and that certain states (particularly western states, which are often prone to drought) are at the greatest risk.

As EID has pointed out many times, context is important, as numerous industries, such as golf courses, agriculture and car washes, use billions of gallons more water than oil and gas producers.  The data show that in top oil and gas producing states – such as Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado – shale development accounts for less than one percent of each state’s total water use.

Now a new study by the Western Energy Alliance and Golder Associates Inc. shows water use from oil and gas producers in the prolific oil and gas producing western states is also very low compared to other industries.  The report examined the six major western production states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. While some states’ data weren’t definitive enough to arrive at a clear picture, the researchers could find conclusively that in three states — Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming — shale development uses less than one percent of the total water. With the other states, it was clear that water use for hydraulic fracturing is also exceedingly low.

From the report: 


The Colorado Water Conservation Board State of Colorado 2050 Municipal and Industrial Water Use Projections (July 2010) identified the largest industrial users as Coors Brewing Company, Colorado Steel Company, Cargill, Swift Company, Kodak, mining facilities, and golf courses. Oil and natural gas make up a subset of the category “industrial water use”. The industrial water use reported in Colorado for 2012 accounts for a mere 0.8 percent of Colorado’s total. With energy development being a subset of that industrial category, the actual figure for the industry is even lower. According to the Deputy State Engineer, the amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing in 2012 was less than 14,000 acre feet.


Water use is not tracked in Montana; however, water authorization rights are reported. Water use for oil and gas activities can fall into several categories: industrial, sale, municipal, and miscellaneous. The combination of water rights for these four categories comes to 7.3 percent. Again, industry activity is just a subset here so while the exact amount is not possible to determine the total is far less than 7.3% of the states total water usage.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, water usage is defined as the total amount of water withdrawn. Thus, the oil and gas industry only withdrew 0.06% of the total water used in New Mexico. In comparison, reservoir evaporation accounts for 6.9 percent the state total. This means that 115 times more water evaporates from the water supply than is used for shale development.

North Dakota

In North Dakota, oil and gas activities are subdivided as industrial non-fracking and industrial fracking. Industrial fracking includes water that is used for hydraulic fracturing activates—this figure is 4 percent of the state total. It should be noted, however, that these numbers are slightly deceiving due to the sparse population when compared to other states (North Dakotas total water use is significantly less than Colorado’s). In fact, if you take in these considerations, water use from oil and gas activities is lower in North Dakota than it is in Colorado. Specifically, Colorado uses 14,000 acre feet of water for hydraulic fracturing to North Dakota’s 12,600 acre feet.


Water used for oil and natural gas extraction is not specifically monitored for in Utah; however, usage for energy development is included in the industrial water-use category. Total water use in this category in 2010 was 4.6 percent of the state total. With oil and natural gas as a subset of that figure, one can deduce that oil and natural gas operators use significantly less.


In Wyoming, water usage is determined by tracking river basins. Wyoming is split up into seven river basins: Bear, Green, Northeast, Platte, Powder/Tongue, Snake/Salt, and Wind/Bighorn. The volume of water used for oil and natural gas activities in Wyoming is minimal relative to the other water uses in the state. Oil and natural gas use for each river basin in Wyoming is as follows:

Bear – 0.05%

Green – 0.3%

Northeast – 4.9%

Platte – 1.2%

Powder/Tongue – 9.0%

Snake/Salt – 0.0%

Wind/Bighorn – 0.0%

Water Use in Context

Context and balance, for that matter, are two things the anti-fracking activists regularly ignore. Not only does energy development require comparatively minimal water resources (as this latest study confirms), innovative extraction techniques are allowing operators to use less and recycle more.

Domestic energy production has also helped the United States bounce back from a severe recession; it has created much-needed jobs and has strengthened our national security by making us less dependent on imports for our vital energy needs. The notion that all these benefits and more should be disregarded because shale development requires water (like every other industrial activity) is impractical, not to mention off base. 

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