The process of hyraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract oil from shale rock might have a looming problem -- and it's not the ongoing efforts by some to stop what they believe to be a harmful practice to the environment, although some studies counter these claims. It's a water shortage.
A report published by Ceres, a network of investors, companies and public interest groups focusing on sustainable business practices, said that nearly 47 percent of the 25,450 fracking wells evaluated were in areas experiencing high or extremely high water stress.
See the full map, zoomable map here. (Image: Ceres)
Water is key to the fracking process because it, along with some chemicals and sand, is pumped into the rocks to create cracks that allow the oil and natural gas flow up the well.
“Given projected sharp increases in shale oil and gas production in the coming years, competition over water should be a growing concern to energy companies, policymakers and investors,” the report states. “Shale energy development cannot grow without water, but in order to do so the industry’s water needs and impacts need to be better understood, measured and managed.”
This March 29, 2013 photo shows a typical hydraulic fracturing operation at a site outside Rifle, in western Colorado. In the background, a battery of yellow tanks hold water for the job at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. gas well. Pump trucks are parked in front of the tanks. Workers control the flow of water, sand and chemicals into the well heads, left, from an operations trailer, center far right. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, raises concern among some that the chemicals used and hydrocarbons released can contaminate groundwater. Industry officials say an absence of documented, widespread problems with fracking proves the process is safe. (Photo: AP/Brennan Linsley)
Using data from FracFocus.org -- a voluntary national fracking chemical registry -- and water stress indicator maps between January 2011 through September 2012, Ceres identified Colorado and Texas as the most water-strapped states as it pertained to location of fracking wells. In Colorado, 92 percent of wells were in areas of extremely high water stress, which Ceres states the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas defines as, meaning more than 80 percent of available water is already being used by municipalities, industry and agriculture.
The report stated that Texas, which had nearly half of the wells analyzed in the report, found slightly more than 50 percent of its wells were in high or extremely high regions of water stress. In some cases, fracking water accounted for 20 percent of the region's total use.
Seventy percent of Pennsylvanian wells, which have long been the focus of media attention thanks to documentaries and environmental activists including Hollywood stars, were in areas of medium to high water stress.
In this Jan. 17, 2013 file photo, Sean Lennon and actress Susan Sarandon visit to a fracking site in New Milford, Pa. Dozens of celebrities may be running afoul of the law as they unite under the banner of one group that is seeking to prevent a method of gas drilling in New York state. Artists Against Fracking opposes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and boasts members including Yoko Ono and actors Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon. (Photo: AP/Richard Drew)
“These findings highlight emerging tensions in many U.S. regions between growing hydraulic fracturing activity and localized water supply needs,” Ceres President Mindy Lubber said, announcing the report at the organization's annual conference in San Francisco.
Although many wells are operating in areas with water shortages, the report does note that the industry has begun using more recycled and non-freshwater alternatives.
Ceres' report states that it believes companies should be required to reveal how much freshwater, non-freshwater and recycled water is used in fracking activities, and it recommends regulators set water use targets for companies.
Download the full study here.
In other fracking news, earlier this week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dramatically lowered its estimate of how much of a potent heat-trapping gas leaks during natural gas production.
Oil and gas drilling companies had pushed for the change, but there have been differing scientific estimates of the amount of methane that leaks from wells, pipelines and other facilities during production and delivery. Methane is the main component of natural gas.
The new EPA data is "kind of an earthquake" in the debate over drilling, said Michael Shellenberger, the president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental group based in Oakland, Calif. "This is great news for anybody concerned about the climate and strong proof that existing technologies can be deployed to reduce methane leaks."
In a mid-April report on greenhouse emissions, the agency now says that tighter pollution controls instituted by the industry resulted in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall. That's about a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates. The agency converts the methane emissions into their equivalent in carbon dioxide, following standard scientific practice.
Experts on both sides of the debate say the leaks can be controlled by fixes such as better gaskets, maintenance and monitoring. Such fixes are also thought to be cost-effective, since the industry ends up with more product to sell.
"That is money going up into the air," said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, adding he isn't surprised the EPA's new data show more widespread use of pollution control equipment. Pielke noted that the success of the pollution controls also means that the industry "probably can go further" in reducing leaks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.