Advances in hydraulic fracturing and drilling technology over the past decade have made it easier for the oil and gas industry to extract large quantities of oil and natural gas from shale and rock formations across the US. But the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is far from “natural.” The natural gas industry is using extensive amounts of fresh water for its extraction process, and leaving a trail of polluted water tables in its wake. At the same time, the industry is targeting areas like California and Texas that are already facing water shortages.
64 percent of the country was in drought last year, and a survey of fracking and water availability released this month finds that 47 percent of oil and gas wells are located in “high to extremely high water-stressed areas,” according to Quartz. The new survey, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress, was compiled by Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes corporate sustainability. Researchers examined data correlating water consumption with water stress maps created by the World Resources Institute, and found widespread water shortages in some of the most gas-rich states.
The process of fracking requires exorbitant amounts of fresh water, which is then mixed with a cocktail of toxic chemicals and pumped deep into the ground to cause fissures, or fractures, through which natural gas can escape and rise to the surface to be collected. The massive amounts of wastewater produced by this process are then pumped deep underground into wastewater wells for disposal.
The chemicals used in this process are unknown to everyone but the companies, due to a convenient loophole in the 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Policy Act, which exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The wastewater contains radioactivity and toxic materials, and can leak from storage wells, contaminating aquifers and water tables. It can enter the food chain through fishing and farming, and can destroy the sources of residents’ drinking water.
Fracking has been responsible for the contamination of water supplies across the United States. So, in addition to the potential devastating impacts fracking can have on the environment, and thereby human health, by contaminating water, the gas industry is also taking enormous quantities of fresh water and turning it into radioactive waste every time it fracks a well. The process requires between 1-8 million gallons of water, and a well may be fracked up to 18 times, according to Dangers of Fracking.
For oil-rich states like Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado, water usage is a very real concern. In Colorado, 92 percent of natural gas wells are located in areas designated as “extremely high water stressed,” which means that 80 percent of water is already being used for residential consumption or industrial or agricultural use, Quartz says.
Fracking operations account for more than 20 percent of water used in some counties in Texas, which has been in a long-running drought. 51 percent of wells in Texas are found in high or extremely high water-stressed locations. “Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities, and energy developers, which is only likely to continue,” researchers found.
The study concludes that natural gas development cannot grow without water, and therefore the industry’s water usage needs to be better understood and managed. “A key question investors should be asking is whether water management planning is getting sufficient attention from both industry and regulators,” it states.
However, for an industry that has no scruples over causing significant damage to the environment, water supplies, and human health, and that is in fact exempt from regulation, it seems highly unlikely that water management will be a concern. The industry has already been able to secure water supplies in areas like Colorado and North Dakota by “paying a higher premium for water from other users or by getting temporary permits.”
Alisha Mims is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.