The Fracking President
By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
Natural gas, according to Obama’s climate speech, is a “bridge” fuel. Shifting from coal to natural gas in US power plants is supposed to slow the increase in US carbon emissions while the US infrastructure transitions to renewable energy. The current availability of cheap natural gas has been made possible by a six-year nationwide boom in hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). This is a process in which water is injected under pressure into rock formations to dislodge the methane (gas) that is trapped there.
Many environmentalists are very critical of Obama’s decision to side with the big energy corporations on the fracking issue. They cite fracking’s destructive environmental consequences, as well as health risks associated with ground water contamination. They, and the rest of us, should be a lot more worried about the massive amount of water used in fracking – especially in states that are already suffering from drought.
Competition in the West and Southwest between oil and gas companies and farmers and ranchers is driving up water prices to the point that growers are taking land out of production. We all know what this means in terms of food prices. If you thought they were high last summer, just wait.
Fracking’s Massive Water Take
At present, many parts of the Midwest, West and Southwest are still officially in drought. 2012’s record-breaking drought was the worst since the 1930’s Dust Bowl. According to Reuters, between 2000 and 2008 water levels in U.S. aquifers, our vast underground water storage reservoirs, dropped at a rate that was almost three times as great as any time during the 20th century.
A comprehensive May 21, 2013 report by Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit, reveals that 47% of oil and gas fracking sites are in high or extremely high water-stressed water basins. The study was based on water consumption by 25,450 fracking wells that drillers voluntarily reported to the FracFocus database between January 2011 and September 2012. The data was then laid on top of water risk maps developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI). During the study period, US fracking operations consumed 68.5 billion gallons of water— equivalent to the amount 2.5 million people would use in a year. Ceres researchers believe this figure is most likely an underestimate – oil and gas companies aren’t required to report how much water they are using.
The amount of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well varies greatly depending on the type of geological formation. Texas uses the most water for fracking, more than three times as much as Pennsylvania, the second largest user. According to estimates, the average Texas well requires up to 6 million gallons of water. In California, in contrast, each well requires 80,000 to 300,000 gallons.
The fracking boom is already affecting several drought-stricken counties in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. The Ceres report calls into question whether the industry’s growth in these arid states is sustainable – especially in Texas, where thousands of new fracking wells are being drilled every year. In Texas, where fracking-related water use has doubled in three years, 51% of wells are in high or extremely high water-stressed locations
The situation in Colorado is equally concerning. According to the Ceres report, 92% of Colorado’s 3,862 fracking wells are in areas designated as “extremely high water stressed.” This means that 80% of the available water is already being called on for residential consumption or for industrial and agriculture use.
Inadequate State and Local Regulation
Different state and municipalities have different ways of dealing with the growing competition between farmers and ranchers and oil and gas companies over dwindling water supplies. In some states, regulators have stepped in to limit the water that energy companies can use during drought conditions. Northwest Louisiana, for example, has ordered oil and gas companies drilling the Haynesville Shale to stop pulling groundwater from the local aquifer that also supplies local farmers and residents. Instead they are required to use surface water.
In contrast, some communities still allow drillers to draw their water for free from underground aquifers or rivers. In others they must buy or lease supplies belonging to water districts, cities and farmers. Some communities charge drillers more for water than other users. In Colorado and North Dakota, for example, energy companies (with more than 19,000 active oil and gas wells in Weld County), are paying up to 10 times more than farmers for municipal water.
Farmers and Residents Left High and Dry
Despite the price differential, increasing competition over water has still caused a prohibitive increase in irrigation costs for many farmers. According to Kent Peppler, President of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, county officials traditionally sell excess portions of their Colorado River water allotment at auction. In a normal year Peppler would pay been $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water at these auctions. At present, however, there is no way he can compete with energy companies paying $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot. Thus he has made the tough decision to fallow some of his corn fields because he can’t afford to irrigate the land for the full growing season.
In South Texas, which has also been declared a drought disaster area by the USDA, fracking is draining nearly 100% of the new inflow to the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer – according to Ron Green of the Southwest Research Institute. In June the West Texas town of Barnhart, with a population of 200, ran out of water. The city’s well simply stopped pumping enough water to keep up with demand. The town had to turn to another well, drilled in the 1900s, which yields water deemed unfit for consumption unless boiled.
Photo credit: Justin Woolford