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Competition for water in US shale energy development

Fracking Should Up Recycled Water Use, Ceres Says

Competition for water in US shale energy developmentHydraulic fracturing operations should scale up their use of recycled water and non-freshwater resources, and practice better water management planning if shale energy production is to grow as projected, a Ceres research paper says.

Most fracking to extract shale gas is happening in water-stressed regions of the US, such as Texas and Colorado, both of which are in the midst of prolonged drought conditions. The report highlights the growing tensions between increasing fracking activity and localized water supply needs, Ceres says.

The report is based on well drilling and water use data from FracFocus.org, collected on 25,450 wells in operation from January 2011 through September 2012, and water stress indicator maps developed by the World Resources Institute. The research shows that nearly 47 percent of the wells were developed in water basins with high or extremely high water stress (see map). Extremely high water stress means more than 80 percent of available water is already being allocated for municipal, industrial and agricultural uses.

Colorado and Texas showed the highest exposure to water stress. In Colorado, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water stress regions. In Texas, which accounts for nearly half of the total wells analyzed, 51 percent of the wells were in high or extremely high water stress regions. In some Texas counties, water use for hydraulic fracturing accounted for more than 20 percent of the region’s total water use.

In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the wells were in medium to high water stress water basins and only 2 percent were in high water stress basins.

The report says the industry has made progress in boosting the use of recycled water and other alternative water sources for fracturing wells. Operators are starting to use non-freshwater alternatives such as wastewater, saline water, seawater and acid-mine drainage.

The report includes recommendations for companies and regulators, including:

  • Comprehensive mandatory disclosure by companies of how much freshwater, non-freshwater and recycled water they are using, region by region, as well as how much water is returning to the surface and where it is ending up.
  • Requirements for companies to set quantifiable water use targets, including recycling and non-freshwater use targets.
  • Ensure that both companies and local regulators are conducting sufficient water management planning.
  • Ensure that companies have a local stakeholder engagement process in place on water issues.

General Electric announced last month that it will build a $110 million research center in Oklahoma to study fracking technologies.

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