Matthew McFeeley, Attorney, Washington, D.C.

Fracking’s water footprint is higher than previously thought, according to a new report that combined data from many sources to provide one of the most comprehensive looks at how water is used by the oil and gas industry.  The researchers from Downstream Strategies and San Jose State University tracked water use, reuse, and disposal in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Among the most concerning findings of the report are:

1.  More than 90% of the water used in the Marcellus is permanently lost from the water cycle.  Remember the water cycle?  You probably learned about it in middle school and remember that, generally, when we “use” water – whether for drinking, showering, irrigating farmland, or in a steam-driven power plant – it still remains part of the cycle.    

 The Water Cycle (hydrologic cycle) courtesy US Geological Service

Image courtesy of the US Geological Service

But, Fracking is different.  A significant proportion of the water used to make fracking fluid remains deep underground, never emerging from the well.  And much of the used fracking fluid that does come out of the well (aka wastewater or flowback) is re-injected underground into waste disposal wells, designed to sequester the wastewater forever.  All in all, the report showed that 92% of all water used in West Virginia was lost, while 94% was lost in Pennsylvania. 

2.  The water used to produce each cubic foot of gas is up to 3 times higher than previous estimates.  The analysis shows that in West Virginia 1.6 to 2.2 gallons are permanently lost for each thousand cubic feet (MCF) of gas produced, while in Pennsylvania that figure is 3.2 to 4.2 gallons per MCF. To put those numbers in context: If all the natural gas used in the U.S. in 2012 was produced with the average water intensity found in West Virginia, 48 billion gallons would have been lost forever in one year.  If the gas was produced with the average water intensity in Pennsylvania, the one-year loss to the water cycle would have been 94 billion gallons. 

3.  While wastewater recycling has been steadily rising in Pennsylvania, it’s declined in West Virginia.  One of the most obvious things that the oil and gas industry can do to reduce fracking’s water footprint is to recycle “flowback” and produced water that emerges from the wellbore rather than using new freshwater supplies for the next frack job.*  But the practice of recycling is actually declining in some places.   States should do more to track the rate of recycling, encourage its use, and to ensure that the residual waste is properly handled and disposed. 

The researchers also note that Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the only two states studied, have relatively abundant water supplies. But more arid regions, where a lot of oil and gas production is occurring, could face much more serious problems from these massive water withdrawals.  More research is needed on the actual impacts to water supplies in the many water-stressed areas where fracking is taking place, and the cumulative impacts from drought, climate change, and other industrial demands.  However, one thing is clear: more must be done to reduce fracking’s water use and to ensure these massive water withdrawals do not jeopardize our water supplies.

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* To minimize the impacts to the environment from wastewater treatment and recycling, NRDC is fighting for the residual waste to be safely regulated under hazardous waste laws, which is currently not the case.