Texas sits atop an estimated 30 billion barrels of oil. That’s a whopping 1.26 trillion gallons! At today’s prices, that oil is worth approximately three trillion ($3,000,000,000,000) dollars. Unfortunately, a great deal of that oil is trapped in shale rock at depths up to 12,000 feet, making it very difficult to access without taking rather drastic measures, such as “fracking,” or Hydraulic Fracturing. Fracking involves the injection of massive amounts of water, chemicals, and sand into the earth to “fracture” or break up the shale and free the oil and gas buried deep underground.
Typically, about 200,000 to 270,000 gallons of fresh water are used to create a single fracture. But a well can be fracked up to 18 times. High Volume (or super) fracking in the shale beds uses about 100 times more water than traditional fracking. Oil wells in the shale beds may use between one and ten million gallons of water per fracture. The San Antonio Express-News reported that in 2012, the industry used around 43,770 acre-feet of water in 3,522 Eagle Ford fracking wells. Since one acre-foot is equal to 326,700 gallons we are talking about more than fourteen billion gallons of water.
Unfortunately, the water used in fracking is considered as “consumed” because it is removed from the hydrologic cycle, never to be used again. Only about twenty percent of the water returns to the surface. The remaining eighty percent remains stuck in the shale deposit. The portion that returns to the surface is called “flowback” and is so polluted by large amounts of brine (salts), toxic metals, and radioactivity that it cannot be returned to the watershed. So, in addition to consuming tremendous amounts of fresh water, fracking leaves a massive amount of toxic wastewater to be disposed of. This leaves the oil and gas companies with a big problem: what to do with the stuff. Most of the “flowback” is trucked to injection wells (non-producing oil and gas wells), where it is injected deep underground and lost from the already-depleted water supply. Every day in the US at least 2 billion gallons of fracking fluids are injected into more than 172,000 wells, either to enhance oil and gas production or to dispose of “flowback.”
About seventy-five percent of fracking in the U.S. occurs in the arid western states where drought conditions are already causing a scarcity in the water supply. Since 2011 almost 97 billion gallons of water have been used in fracking wells in Texas, which is still in a severe drought that began in October of 2010.
New data suggests that oil and gas companies may soon find that water is hard to come by in Texas. Agriculture in many counties competes head to head with oil companies for water to maintain their operations.
Texas perennial drought conditions mean that the greatest concern regarding fracking is the permanent and substantial loss of freshwater. Even if the current drought conditions resolve, there is still the issue of increasing the water supply enough to deal with future population and economic growth. Portions of the state are suffering some of the nation’s worst drought conditions, while the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and Houston areas continue to lead the country in population growth. In fact, the water crunch is so severe in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that local officials estimate they will need to double the supply of freshwater by 2050 to meet projected demand. At the same time, freshwater is becoming scarcer.
Reservoirs in much of the state are empty. The Panhandle is the worst off, with reservoirs at less than 2% capacity. The reservoirs in West and South Texas are at about a third of their capacity.
About sixty percent of the water used in Texas comes from nine major aquifers. Nearly 80% of the water is for irrigation and most of it is coming from the Ogallala Aquifer (which lies beneath much of the Panhandle and southward). The Ogallala has been dropping quite rapidly for decades, as water is being used faster than the aquifer can recharge. Since 1940, a volume of groundwater equivalent to two-thirds of the water held in Lake Erie has been depleted from the Ogallala.
Levels of aquifers that serve local communities near the Eagle Ford Shale oil fields have dropped by up to 300 feet since 2001 equaling one-third of the cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century. Some locations in Texas are trucking in water to meet local demand. Obviously, this pattern cannot continue forever.
The Edwards Aquifer, major source for San Antonio’s water is just barely above the level at which critical management restrictions kick in (which will require a 35% reduction in annual pumping amounts allowed for those with permits, including city water suppliers).
Midland, TX, in the Permian Basin, has long depended upon the oil and gas industry. However, two years ago the city came close to running out of water for its 120,000 residents to drink. For three straight summers, the drought sucked two Midland reservoirs virtually dry. In 2012 Midland rushed through a crash project to build a pipeline that is now pumping 4 million gallons of water a day from a new source that is 67 miles away. Needless to say, water rates have gone up drastically in Midland.
Wichita Falls in now using retreated wastewater (recycled sewage water) to meet between a third and half of the daily demand. I would imagine that a lot of bottled water is now being sold in Wichita Falls! Brownwood and El Paso have reuse plans under development.
In Dimmit County, TX, which sits on the Eagle Ford shale play, a recent study projected that fracking would account for more than half of all water used in the county by next year.
As groundwater tables fall, Texas oil and gas companies are stepping into the water marketing business. Oil and gas companies have the money to drive up the price of water by paying landowners much more than can be made from selling to public water utilities. Because of their money, oil and gas companies are able to obtain water in areas where water is scarce. As a result, a lot of companies are moving into Texas to market groundwater. I guess there are people who think that oil is more important than water. But can you drink oil?