Fracking is a thirsty business.
A typical hydraulic fracturing well requires two to four million gallons of fresh water. Multiply that times hundreds of thousands of wells developed in the U.S. and Canada over the last decade and you get the idea – the shale revolution has an unquenchable water habit.
Although water use for hydraulic fracturing is a relatively small proportion of a state’s overall water use, at the local county or municipal level it is typically very high, often exceeding the water use of all residents in a region.
In shale basins across Texas, Colorado, and other parts of the West, fracking is elevating competitive pressures for water, particularly given the prolonged drought conditions and already depleted groundwater aquifers (due to decades of overuse by agriculture and other major water users) these regions are also experiencing.
According to a new Ceres report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, nearly half of all hydraulic fracturing wells developed since 2011 across the U.S. are located in areas of high or extreme high water stress. More than 36 percent of the wells are in areas with depleted groundwater aquifers, in particular in California and Texas, and 56 percent of wells overlay regions experiencing drought.
As shale energy operators boost production in many parts of the U.S. – the Eagle Ford and Permian shale basins in Texas alone will see an estimated $50 billion of capital investment this year – questions regarding water availability and proper water resource management loom large.
“Future water demand for hydraulic fracturing will only grow … many shale plays and basins are just beginning to be developed,” says the Ceres report issued this month.
As hydraulic fracturing and water pressures continue to proliferate, local attention to its comprehensive impacts on groundwater and surface water supplies will also grow. In the past six months, a half-dozen communities in Texas and Colorado have imposed fracking bans, in large part due to water availability and contamination concerns.
Today many experts are looking for solutions. How can hydraulic fracturing be expanded without threatening groundwater and surface water supplies in local communities? The Ceres report highlights many progressive practices, including technological solutions that promote recycling or minimize freshwater use, but far more comprehensive thinking will be required. Key report recommendations for the industry include:
- Institutionalize water management across the whole company; board and executive leadership should have oversight of water risk management.
- Strengthen stakeholder engagement by improving channels of communication among regulators, investors, community members, and companies around future water requirements.
- Disclose water data – how much gets used in each major operating region, where it comes from, future needs and alternative water sourcing (such as recycling and brackish water use) – and make it transparent and available to local stakeholders and investors.
- Work collaboratively between industry partners to build out key water management infrastructure, including recycling and reuse centers.
- Become solutions-oriented by investing in source water protection programs helping to protect local groundwater resources and watersheds.
Barring tighter water-use regulations and dramatic improvements in the industry’s water management practices, the industry’s escalating water needs in many regions are on a collision course with other major water users, especially agriculture and municipalities.
Shale operators, investors, and banks providing capital for hydraulic fracturing operations should be recognizing these water sourcing risks and pressing for solutions and best practices for dealing with them.
Mindy Lubber is president of Ceres, a nonprofit organization mobilizing business leadership on climate change, water scarcity and other sustainability challenges. She is also on GE’s ecomagination advisory board. Twitter: @CeresNews and @MindyLubber