The New York Times’ Monstrous Misrepresentation of U.S. Fracking Operations

The Shale Revolution improved upon technologies the oil and natural gas industry had been using for decades and enabled a transition from energy scarcity to energy security, reduced emissions, lowered prices and helped entice manufacturing and other investments across the country.

Despite this and more than a decade of evidence demonstrating the safety of fracking, the technology continues to come under attack. Most recently, a New York Times analysis claims that “monster fracks” – a term coined by the Environmental Working Group in 2013 as part of protests against fracking in the United Kingdom – are causing energy scarcity issues, particularly in places like Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

But the story portrayed by the NYT misleadingly rehashes claims made by the same outlet a decade ago that have yet to become reality.

The reality is that innovative advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (i.e. fracking) at the turn of the century transformed U.S. energy production and shaped the role of the United States as a supplier of these resources. This updated drilling and completions process involves drilling a lateral leg of a well and using a mostly water and sand mixture to release the oil and natural gas trapped in shale formations that had previously been undevelopable.

Today most new wells in the United States are hydraulically fractured, with the volume of water needed to do so varying widely between formations. Improvements in efficiency and technology since the beginning of the Shale Revolution have enabled the oil and gas industry to find alternative sources for water and helped reduce the amount of freshwater needed to complete wells.

Here is what you need to keep in mind when reading the New York Times analysis:

FACT: Fracking uses roughly 0.1 percent of the total water consumed in the United States annually – and that hasn’t changed in more than a decade despite increased production and longer laterals.

Based on data the reporters pulled from – a fluid disclosure database managed by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission – the NYT analysis finds that approximately 1.5 trillion gallons of water have been used to hydraulically fracture wells since 2011.

The NYT then equates this nearly 12-year water usage to “how much tap water the entire state of Texas uses in a year.” Although the reporters never provide the correct annual amount – approximately 125 billion gallons per year – they do say a single well could “now use as much as 40 million gallons of water or more.”

That’s a lot of big numbers without context:

  • The United States consumes around 322 billion gallons of water per day (53 trillion gallons annually), according to the most recent U.S. Geological Survey data. Water used for hydraulic fracturing is equal to roughly 0.1 percent of total U.S. water consumption in a year.
    • A well using 40 million gallons of water for hydraulic fracturing in its lifetime would consume about .01 percent of total U.S. water consumption for a single day and 0.00003 percent of annual consumption.
  • Water used for hydraulic fracturing across the entire United States annually is roughly 10 percent of the tap water the state of Texas uses in a year.
  • Golf course irrigation in 2020 used approximately 547 billion gallons of water. That’s roughly 340 percent more water than that used to hydraulically fracture for oil and gas annually.

Notably, the proportion of water used for hydraulic fracturing as a share of America’s total water consumption hasn’t changed in the last decade despite significantly more production and longer laterals for wells.

In 2015, the Government Accountability Office found that less than one percent of total water consumption was used for hydraulic fracturing. Likewise, researchers at Duke University also released a study that same year finding that fracking accounted for “0.87 percent of the total industrial water used in the United States and only 0.04 percent of the total fresh water use per year in the United States.”

In other words, fracking still represents less than 1 percent of total consumption although crude oil and natural gas production have increased by 26 percent and 32 percent, respectively, since 2015.

FACT: Innovations in recycling and reuse have greatly reduced the amount of freshwater used in fracking.

The NYT claims that “much” of the water used to hydraulically fracture wells in the United States comes “from aquifers.” While it’s true that freshwater is used in hydraulic fracturing, the article glosses over key facts on this.

First, entries on FracFocus often don’t differentiate the source of the water. Operators report total volumes, not necessarily whether that water was freshwater or alternative sources – so, the reporters made an assumption that can vary greatly depending on where development is occurring.

Second, the reporters minimize the alternative water discussion, including it only as part of company statements and in a brief mention at the end questioning its implementation in the Permian Basin. It’s the same dismissal Ian Urbina used in 2011 in his NYT Drilling Down series when discussing the relatively newer trend of using recycled water for fracking.

In the decade plus since 2011, though, using recycling and alternative non-freshwater sources for fracking has grown exponentially.

Operators across the country commonly use brackish water in their frack fluid solutions. And while yes, this does technically come from a groundwater source too, its high saline content means that it either can’t be used for typical consumption or has to undergo treatment to be able to do so.

In Texas, only 56 of the more than 1,200 municipalities in the state are currently able to desalinate brackish water for municipal use, according to the Texas Water Development Board. But the water can be much more easily used in the hydraulic fracturing process and doing so helps to alleviate the amount of freshwater used in wells.

Another growing trend across the country is to recycle the produced water from previous wells to be used in future wells. As B3 Insight’s Kelly Bennett recently explained:

“In fact, 2023 is likely to be the first year Permian Basin operators use more produced water in completions than water sourced from fresh or brackish sources. This marks an important, seemingly overlooked, milestone in the oil and gas industry’s efforts to advance sustainability and resource stewardship goals.” (emphasis added)

On an individual company level, the numbers are even more impressive. Chevron, for instance, sources 99 percent of the water for its completions from brackish or recycled water, while Apache told the NYT its number is around 80 percent non-freshwater sources, and Ovintiv is using 100 percent recycled water for its completions in Midland and Martin counties in Texas.

And the one company the NYT spotlighted because it has been sued over water use in New Mexico actually has a really great story to tell as well. Enduring Resources invested more than $25.5 million for a water treatment system to recycle its water for reuse, enabling the company to virtually eliminate freshwater from its completions. As of 2020, the company used just 1.3 percent freshwater in its completions, according to an affidavit filed by the company.

FACT: Fracking has enabled environmental progress in the United States.

Emissions reductions made possible from natural gas are well-known, but the increased use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has had other significant environmental benefits too.

The NYT largely frames longer laterals as a less efficient process that uses more resources than traditional wells. Beyond this being categorically false, the use of longer laterals in shale wells greatly reduces the surface area needed to recover energy. Horizontal drilling enables multiple wells to be drilled from a single well pad, reducing the surface area impacts by up to 90 percent.

The abundance of natural gas unlocked by the Shale Revolution has also helped decrease the amount of water needed for other water-intensive industries like electricity generation. According to the Energy Information Administration, the shift to more natural gas power generation “accounts for approximately 80 percent of the downward trend in water withdrawals by the electric power sector.” Water usage for power generation fell from 14,928 gallons per megawatthour (gal/MWh) in 2015 to 11,857 gal/MWh in 2020.

The Bottomline: The New York Times article disregards essential context on the water consumed for energy production in the United States. The fact is, fracking is a critical component to energy production that boosts our nation’s economy while maintaining energy security.

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