Everybody is talking about a new report that credits the US oil and gas fracking boom with a 770% increase in water consumption over the past few years. The sharp increase is certainly eye-catching but it’s not exactly a surprise. The force of the water-energy nexus is strong within the fossil fuel industry, especially when the idea is to force massive volumes of water into underground rock formations.
So, what’s really the point of the new fracking study?
Fracking And Water
For those of you new to the topic, fracking is short for hydrofracturing, the practice of pumping water doctored with chemicals and other substances into shale formations, to jar loose oil and gas.
Fracking has a decades-long history in the US, but until recently it was only a sidebar to conventional drilling. After the Bush administration loosened water federal water quality regulations in the early 2000’s, the fracking boom took off like a rocket.
During the Obama administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency took steps to regain some semblance of oversight but its efforts were crippled by the information gap resulting from regulatory loopholes.
It’s also worth noting that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy allowed for natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, though the purported advantages of natural gas have been shrinking as more evidence of public health risks accumulates (that’s over and above climate impacts, btw).
Anecdotal evidence about water contamination is also piling up, but hard evidence about the impact of fracking on local water resources is still, well, hard to come by.
The New Fracking Study
In that context, consider that the sheer volume of water involved in fracking could pose economic risks to local communities, whether or not the operation actually contaminates local water resources.
That brings us around to the new study. The Avner Vengosh Research Group at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment is behind it, and that should be one tipoff that this particular study is particularly significant.
The team has been investigating the impact of fracking on water resources since the US fracking boom began gathering steam and they have assembled quite a body of research.
The new study builds on earlier research, which suggests that fracking adds another layer of stress in areas that are already experiencing water resource issues.
That stress doesn’t necessarily have to directly impact public health or the environment. It could also impact economic activity.
Here’s the money quote:
The amount of water used per well for hydraulic fracturing surged by up to 770 percent between 2011 and 2016 in all major U.S. shale gas and oil production regions, a new Duke University study finds.
The volume of brine-laden wastewater that fracked oil and gas wells generated during their first year of production also increased by up to 1440 percent during the same period, the study shows.
If this rapid intensification continues, fracking’s water footprint could grow by up to 50-fold in some regions by the year 2030 — raising concerns about its sustainability, particularly in arid or semi-arid regions in western states, or other areas where groundwater supplies are stressed or limited.
In other words, the study could provide communities with a fact-based platform for limiting or prohibiting fracking, even if there is no evidence of water contamination.
The missing link is hard evidence that fracking inhibits existing agricultural operations or other economic activity. A 2016 study in Canada indicates that more information on that score may be forthcoming. That study found a measurable impact on the yield of irrigated crops related to fracking during “agriculturally active months.”
Water Pressure And National Security
The new study should also send up a red flag for national security planners. Access to water is an age-old source of human conflict, climate change and population growth are exacerbating water resource issues, and that is one of the reasons why the US Department of Defense is among those linking climate change impacts to global instability.
The Duke team connects the dots (breaks added for readability):
It has been estimated that global water withdrawal for energy production constitutes 15% of the world’s total water consumption. Rapidly diminishing global water resources due to population growth and climate change have further exacerbated energy dependence on water availability, particularly in water-scarce regions.
For more details on the study check out “The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing,” authored by Andrew J. Kondash, Nancy E. Lauer and Avner Vengosh in the journal Science Advances.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to Mr. Vengosh for some additional insights, so stay tuned for more.
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Image: via Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment.
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