Does Fracking Really Deplete Water Supplies?

Jesse Jenkins writing in the Wall Street Journal takes an in depth look at the question in the title.  Since what we hear about fracking are the big round numbers like four million gallons of water per well and billions upon billions of gallons consumed per year, it is easy to look at hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of energy production as an environmental disaster.

Jenkins’ article takes a close look at water usage involved in fracking and makes some interesting points that aren’t often considered.  For example,  the degree to which water is a local issue.  Using four million gallons of water in thirsty south Texas is a much bigger deal that using four million gallons in rainy Pennsylvania.  Also, how much water is actually saved by fracking if the energy harvested is used to replace coal.

Jenkins’ informative article is long and filled with lots of facts and graphics. Here I’m going to produce only his chapter summaries:

Summary: All shale gas wells drilled and completed in the United States in 2011 consumed on the order of 135 billion gallons of water, equivalent to about 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption.

Summary: Shale gas consumes about 0.6-1.8 gallons of water per million BTUs of energy produced. If shale gas is used to generate electricity at a combined cycle gas plant and displace coal-fired power, the quantity of water consumed per unit of electricity generated could fall by on the order of 80 percent.

Summary: All shale gas wells drilled and completed in Texas in 2011 amounted to less than 1 percent of all water withdrawals in the state of Texas. That figure could grow roughly three-fold by 2020 as shale production rises, although other developments could reduce the amount of freshwater consumed per well.

Summary: Like politics, water consumption is a local issue. Fracking presents a major source of water consumption in arid locales like Dimmit County, Texas in the Eagle Ford shale region, where fracking represents on the order of one-quarter of the entire county’s water consumption. In contrast, in the more rainy Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, the water needs for an entire fracking operation represent about 17 days of average local rainfall in even the driest months of the year.

Throughout the article are revealing water statistics like “…total annual water consumption for fracking in the Barnett Shale, the largest play in Texas, is equal to about 9 percent of the annual water consumption of the city of Dallas.”

What the author does not address is the nature of the “use” of water.  It isn’t quite the same to use water in an urban setting where it is captured in a wastewater system, cleaned,  and recycled as it is to pollute it mightily then inject it into a deep well where it is taken out of nature’s hydrological cycle.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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