Some Perspective on WRI’s Recent Water Report

This week, the World Resources Institute (WRI) released a new report entitled, “Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability & Business Risks,” which looks at 20 countries with the potential for shale development, then overlays these shale formations with data on water stress.

According to the report, 40 percent of the countries with the largest shale resources face “high water stress or arid conditions” – a fact, WRI argues, that “could become a stumbling block for rapid development of shale resources through hydraulic fracturing.”

But as EID has highlighted in the past, when it comes to the issue of water use in hydraulic fracturing context is crucial.  For that perspective, it’s important to note a few key facts:

Water risk for oil and gas development is low compared to other industries

Simply finding that a shale play is in an area where water supplies can be strained doesn’t actually tell us anything constructive about water use and hydraulic fracturing.

On the other hand, WRI’s “Aqueduct” data, which WRI used as a baseline for this report, does tell us something constructive about water use and shale development.  It finds that oil and gas development actually poses the lowest water risk of any industry WRI evaluated in Canada and the United States, where there is currently an energy boom.  Oil and gas ranks far lower than a number of industries including agriculture, construction and the food and beverage industries for water use.

Below is the WRI “Aqueduct” data for overall water risk for oil and gas development:


Oil and gas – Overall Water Risk


The series of color coded maps below show oil and natural gas have a much lower water risk than construction, electric power, agriculture, textiles, food and beverage and other industries:

Chemicals - Overall Water Risk
Chemicals – Overall Water Risk
Mining - Overall Water Risk
Mining – Overall Water Risk
Electric Power - Overall Water Risk
Electric Power – Overall Water Risk
Agriculture - Overall Water Risk
Agriculture – Overall Water Risk
Food & Beverage - Overall Water Risk
Food & Beverage – Overall Water Risk
Textiles - Overall Water Risk
Textiles – Overall Water Risk
Semiconductors - Overall Water Risk
Semiconductors – Overall Water Risk
Construction Materials - Overall Water Risk
Construction Materials – Overall Water Risk

Interestingly, the argument that WRI makes is very similar to the argument made in a February report by the anti-fracking “divestment” group called Ceres.  While the Ceres’ report focused only on the United States, it also claimed that since some shale plays are in areas with water stress, hydraulic fracturing would put those areas on a “collision course” for water use.

Ceres also used WRI’s “Aqueduct” mapping tool to make that argument, but what Ceres failed to note to the public was that WRI’s measure of “overall water risk” for the oil and gas industry was actually “low to medium” over the majority of the United States.

Likewise, WRI’s report focuses primarily on the fact that some shale plays coincide with drought areas, but completely leaves out the fact that, according to its own data, shale development’s use of that water is low compared to other industries in Canada and the United States, which are leading the world in shale development.  However, the WRI does rightly note, “in 40 percent of the shale plays, irrigated agriculture is the largest water user.”

In the U.S., that low water risk can be seen even in states that are leading the nation in shale development. Take Colorado, where the oil and natural gas uses only 0.1 percent of the state’s overall water use. In Pennsylvania, a report by Accenture Consulting found of the “the shale gas industry uses less than 0.2% of that for hydraulic fracturing” in the state.

And in Texas, a state whose oil and gas output has outpaced OPEC’s second largest producer, “In 2010, water withdrawals for drilling and hydraulic fracturing represented only 0.5 percent of the withdrawals in Texas.”

In some instances, in fact, oil and gas development has helped to increase water supply. Take California, the third largest oil producing state in the United States, where development of oil in the Kern River Field is actually helping to provide water to the state. From the New York Times:

“The Kern River field also produces 10 times more of something that, at least during California’s continuing drought, has become more valuable to many locals and has experienced the kind of price spike more familiar to oil: water. The field’s owner, Chevron, sells millions of gallons every day to a local water district that distributes it to farmers growing almonds, pistachios, citrus fruits and other crops.”

Industry reducing water use, ramping up recycling

The report ends with four recommendations for governments and relevant stakeholders to consider when moving forward with shale development, including the importance of the oil and gas industry reducing freshwater use. As the report highlights, “new projects are underway to support increased recycling and reuse to reduce freshwater withdrawals and consumption by the oil and gas sector.”

That’s already well underway as producers are rapidly ramping up water recycling: Marcellus producers, for instance, are currently recycling 90 percent of their flowback water.

As Bloomberg reports, Halliburton — one of the largest providers of hydraulic fracturing services across the globe – has set a goal for the oil and gas industry reduce the amount of freshwater used in hydraulic fracturing by 25 percent by the end of 2014. According to Reuters:

“Halliburton and Exxon Mobil Inc’s XTO Energy earlier this year documented the use of Halliburton’s H2OForward recycling service on XTO Energy wells in Eddy County, New Mexico in a paper at a Society of Petroleum Engineers conference. The study found cost savings of between $70,000 and $100,000 per well. The wells have shown no loss of production, Dale said.

“…FTS International said it is using up to 100 percent reclaimed water in some locations in Oklahoma and Texas, with results comparable to using fresh water.”

As the Houston Chronicle reports:

“Oilfield service companies are developing techniques that use less water, including “dry fracs,” where gas generally stands in for the fluid. And some oil and gas companies are seeking to reuse much of the fracturing water that flows back out of a well, as well as water produced from the formation itself.

“Desalination technology can transform fracturing wastewater and briny supplies so they can be used in a well — creating another water resource even in areas with relatively sparse fresh drinking water options.”

A recent study from the Marcellus Shale region also found that shale gas wells produce less wastewater per unit of energy than conventional wells. And as the Associated Press put it, “recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry.”

Shale development provides big returns on jobs and energy for gallons used

As EID has highlighted before, the return on the gallons of water used for hydraulic fracturing compared to other industries in terms of jobs and the energy produced is pretty darned good – and that’s worth some consideration too.  In fact, the natural gas produced from investing 5 million gallons of water creates nearly five jobs, while that same amount of water accounts for two jobs on a golf course.  The natural gas produced from 1 million gallons of water can power 8,585 homes, while the energy produced from solar with that same amount of water can power 3.75 homes.   That’s not to say solar isn’t an important energy source – but rather that, like anything, it is imperative to keep in mind perspective when thinking about how we use our water resources.

Another important consideration is the “return” for other industries that need the energy natural gas in order to thrive.  Perhaps Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, explained it best when she said hydraulic fracturing “is an important use of our water — to produce energy, which is the foundation of all we do. Think about the big users of water — agriculture, industrial development. All these things require energy.”


Water is a crucial issue and all water users, including oil and gas producers, should continue to look for ways to reduce their water use footprints.  However, perspective is always crucial: hydraulic fracturing only accounts for a fraction of one percent of total water use across the United States and there’s no reason it would be any different in other countries.  It’s unfortunate that WRI chose to leave that important perspective (which its own data clearly shows) out of this latest report.

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