Study: Water Use for Fracking Less Than One Percent of Total U.S. Water Consumption

Researchers at Duke University have just released a new study looking at the amount of water used and produced during shale development across the country. The report finds that the water used in the fracking process is only a fraction of what other industries use, and well under one percent of total fresh water consumption in the United States. From the study:

“This estimated water use is 0.87% of the total industrial water used in the United States and only 0.04% of the total fresh water use per year in the United States.” (page 3, emphasis added)

Although the researchers note that an increase in oil and gas activity has led to an increase in the water used and produced for hydraulic fracturing, the

“water use and produced water intensity evaluation indicates that hydraulic fracturing is not extracting more water and generating more wastewater relative to conventional oil or coal mining while normalized to the energy production” (page 4, emphasis added)

The Duke study comes on the heels of a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which also found overall water usage to be less than one percent of total U.S. water withdrawals. GAO attributed this to new technologies like

“the use of waterless and water-efficient fracturing fluids such as those utilizing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and foams, and the technique of channel fracturing, which has been shown to improve operational efficiency while reducing material cost and water usage in selected formations” (p. 19)

So how did the different formations across the United States rank in terms of water used and produced? Duke researchers found the results varied pretty significantly depending on the shale plays.

The Monterey Shale in California used the least amount of water of all U.S. shale plays, although it produced significantly more water likely due to the increased permeability of the shale when compared with other formations (page 4). The produced water is put to beneficial use for enhanced oil recovery or it is disposed of in Class II injection wells.

This water has an even more important use for the drought-ridden region, though. For more than 20 years produced water has been treated and sold to farmers to help alleviate their water burdens. In fact, last year in Kern County alone, producers provided more than 10 billion gallons of water to local farmers. In addition, Chevron is selling roughly 21 million gallons per day to farmers heavily hit by the drought this year at a fraction of the cost of freshwater from other sources, according to Newsweek.

The Barnett Shale in Texas used the most water of any shale plays around the country and also produces more water than many other formations.  The authors say that due to “a semi-arid region of Texas and the growing stress on both ground and surface water resources with population growth” this “could be a limiting factor” for future development in the Barnett (page 3). But the authors offer no context for such an assumption. As a recent University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology pointed out,

“The large number of hydraulically fractured wells in Texas (≥20 000) and high water use per well create the perception of large rates of water use. However, water use for shale-gas production is relatively minor (<1%) when compared to that for mostly consumptive irrigation (56%) and municipal (26%) water use in Texas in recent years” (emphasis added)

Further, a report from the University of Texas found that hydraulic fracturing is actually helping to shield Texas from water shortages because it is allowing the state to move away from using more water intensive energy resources.

At the end of the day, this report debunks the common misconception touted by activists against fracking—namely that extremely large quantities of water are used and then lost forever. Oil and gas producers use a very small fraction of the overall water consumed in each play. And, with continued technological advancements such as water recycling, the impacts on our water table have already been lessened and will only get better in the future.


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