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Understanding Fracking’s Massive Water Use

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The average fracking site uses about 4.2 million gallons of water in each well, which is enough clean drinking water for 42,000 people.

By Kristina Ross Posted Sep 11, 2013

FrackingThere are many luxuries that Americans have become accustomed to, but clean drinking water shouldn’t be thought of as one of them. For centuries people have enjoyed drinking fresh water from a well or stream. But now it seems some will have to choose between energy in their homes or clean water from the tap—all thanks to fracking.

Antero Resources, an energy company with fracking investments, has proposed a $500 million fracking pipeline to siphon millions of gallons of water from the Ohio River. The 80-mile pipeline would transport water to the company’s fracking sites in Ohio and West Virginia.

Regardless of whether the pipeline actually comes to fruition, Antero will still use massive quantities of water to extract natural gas resources. And it’s just one of dozens of companies all across the nation that will do so. Sure, fracking leads to cheaper natural gas and even electricity, but is keeping the lights on for less worth the environmental risk of a dwindling water supply?

What is fracking?

For millions of years, shale rock formations have trapped decomposing organisms deep under the earth’s surface. As the decomposition takes place, these organisms release natural gases, which can be harnessed for energy. Horizontal fracking came about in the 1990s to reach these natural gas resources found in thin layers of shale rock formations. At a time when the U.S. was facing rising energy costs, the ability to generate more natural resources caused many to breathe a sigh of relief.

Though the process may have eased the nation out of a potential energy crisis, it may be putting it in an environmental crisis. In order to release the natural gas resources trapped beneath the earth’s surface, fracking wells are bombarded with millions of gallons of water and chemicals to break through rock formations. The average fracking site uses about 4.2 million gallons of water in each well, which is enough clean drinking water for 42,000 people. That much water use is obviously an environmental concern, but Antero’s wells drain even more. The company blasts 6 million gallons of water in each of its wells to harness natural gas resources.

Fracking’s water waste causes concern for many

Antero plans to suck up 4.8 million gallons of water per day from the Ohio River to support its fracking frenzy. Though the river is certainly a large reserve of water, who knows if it can stand up to the constant water reductions? With 3 million people relying on the river for clean drinking water and over 150 species of aquatic life settled in the area, the pipeline is a risk many don’t want to take.

Fracking

Ohio residents aren’t the only ones who should worry about water waste. In Texas, where there are three major fracking regions, some residents struggle for clean drinking water. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, about 30 cities could run out of water by the end of the year. The state has already been plagued with severe drought since 2011, and fracking’s water use is draining water reservoirs even further.

In the small town of Barnhart, Texas, it’s already too late. The Guardian reported that the community ran out of water for five days before a work crew revived an abandoned railway well to pump water to the city’s residents. Some believe the solution is just a temporary fix and won’t allow them to have clean drinking water for long.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, about 30 cities could run out of water by the end of the year.

Another issue surrounding fracking is a potential water contamination problem. Once the water has been flushed into fracking wells, it can’t be returned to its source. Instead, the chemical-laden cocktail will stay under the earth’s surface. Though the water used remains far beneath water tables, many report health issues near fracking sites and claim that wildlife is affected too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched an investigation into the matter. It’s expected to produce a report with its findings in the next year.

The pipeline has already been partially approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates Ohio River water withdrawals. It may be just a matter of time before Antero starts draining the Ohio River. If all goes according to plan, the river will provide water to frack 30 percent of Antero’s 135 planned wells in 2013—about 24 million gallons of water. In 2014, the company wants to pull from the Ohio River even more by using it as a water resource for 75 percent of its planned wells. Though the river is not likely to run dry any time soon, if the area ever experiences a severe drought or supplies too much fracking water it’s plausible that the Ohio River could one day be a rocky bed of nothing but dirt.

fracking

Though wasteful of water, fracking has its benefits

Despite the water waste, fracking is booming all over the United States—and it certainly has an economic benefit. According to the Dallas Morning News, fracking has created more than 1.6 million American jobs and will add $197 million to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015.

On the environmental front, natural gas is considered a cleaner burning fuel, emitting fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. Because of its ample availability and environmental benefits, many power plants have switched to using natural gas as an energy source instead of more expensive coal and oil. To that end, carbon emissions are at their lowest levels since 1994, according to a June 2013 report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Antero is just one of many fracking companies seeking to extract valuable natural gas resources from the earth. Its properties span across 426,000 acres of the Appalachian Basin in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It’s in this area where the company operates 18 drilling rigs in the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations and fracks natural gas resources. One of the benefits of drilling in Ohio is that the state is deregulated, allowing Antero the option of selling natural gas directly to retail energy suppliers, which in turn sell it to consumers.

Today, the company trucks millions of gallons of water to its fracking sites, a process that Antero says is too expensive. The company spends roughly $600,000 to transport water to each well. In addition, one must also factor in the emissions caused by the use of so many large trucks to transport the water. Its proposed pipeline would nearly eliminate the need for trucks and could eventually save the company a bundle on its fracking costs.

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Kristina Ross currently works as the webmaster and sustainability blogger at SaveOnEnergy.com. Her work concentrates on a healthier relationship between the environment and the people who live in it. She promotes the reduction of environmental impact through cleaner means of energy production and consumption.

Posted in Science and Transportation Tags , , , ,
  • http://templendo.com/ Chris Brown

    this is a big problem

  • David Kucher

    The subtitle claims 4.2 million gallons of water use per well, yet if you do the math with the numbers provided in the story, it comes up with only 0.6 million per well. What’s up with that?

    • Christina Rissen

      what’s up with that David Kucher! there is only 2% of the worlds water that is drinking water and they use it to flush a well when there is no need to take more fossil fuels out of the ground. Leave them where they are- in the ground!!

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