The public and legislators are putting more focus on natural gas drillers during times of drought
With 81% of Americans concerned about increased drought and other extreme weather conditions, according to a recent survey conducted by ORC International (Princeton, N.J.) for the nonprofit Civil Society Institute (Newton, Mass.), industries that use large volumes of water for their operations are now more on the public’s radar screen. These industries include natural gas drilling, which uses hydraulic fracturing, a process by which fluid and additives are pumped into the ground to create fractures in the rock to enable more natural gas to flow and be withdrawn. The same survey reports three out of four Americans think that “with all the current concern about severe drought and the risk of water shortages, America needs to start focusing more on alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, that require less water,” according to a news release.
Many drillers argue that compared to other industries, natural gas drilling is not a huge water consumer.
“When you compare it to, say, keeping golf courses watered,” drilling isn’t “really a drain on water resources,” said Julia Bell, public affairs and communications coordinator at the Independent Petroleum Association of America (Washington, D.C.).
That argument may be true on a national or statewide level, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas (Austin). “But [drillers] account for about 40% of local water use in southern Texas.” And unlike wastewater produced by other industries, “the water from fracking is injected into the ground and is forever removed from the hydrological cycle, which is why it is a major concern for us,” he said.
Metzger added that thanks to droughts and hydrofracking in the Barnett Shale — a geological formation that underlies the city of Fort Worth and at least 17 counties in Texas — there are likely to be spot shortages in some parts of Texas.
In Pennsylvania, authorities already have restricted hydraulic fracturing in some areas because a lack of snowfall last winter and a lack of rain this spring contributed to abnormally low streamflows and drought. Because of this, 64 separate water withdrawals for natural gas drilling that previously had been approved by Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC; Harrisburg, Pa.) were suspended, according to a July 16 SRBC news release.
Finding solutions and alternatives
Because of worries about water shortages and the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater quality, some legislatures are examining drillers’ water use more closely.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature became the first in the country to require disclosure of the chemicals drillers use in fracking, Metzger said. The House Energy Resources and Natural Resources committees also held a joint hearing in which oil and gas drilling companies testified about water use and water conservation practices.
“Climatologists have said that [Texas is] still in a drought cycle,” said Rep. James Keffer (R), chairman of the Texas House Energy Resources Committee.
“More than 70% of the state is in drought,” Metzger said. “At least 11 reservoirs are less than 10% full.”
This means Texas has to maintain an even keener focus on its water supply.
“Even though [drillers] are a small percentage of water consumers compared to irrigation and energy production, they’re basically the last guys to the party, which puts more focus on them,” Keffer admitted.
Keffer said that the oil and gas industry “isn’t sitting on its hind end,” and seems to be trying to find solutions to curtail its use of fresh water. There is a considerable amount of research and development going on regarding reuse of fracking water, he said.
Keffer said he knows of one manufacturer that has patented a down-hole device that enables drillers to use less water for drilling but to have the same level of natural gas production. “The average water use for a drilling site is about 8 million gal [30 million L],” he said. “But with this device you only have to use 5 million gal [19 million L] of water.”
Some companies are trying to remove the use of water from the drilling process entirely, Keffer pointed out. Those such as Gasfrac (Calgary, Alberta) are using gelled propane instead of fracking water at their sites.
Brent Giles, analyst for Lux Research (Boston), said the gelled propane technology initially was founded at Chevron (San Ramon, Calif.). “But that person jumped ship and went to Gasfrac,” he said. “Their first job was in 2008, and they’ve done hundreds of jobs since then. They’re already at $150 million in business.”
Texas legislators are hoping that they can get drillers to use less fresh water on a voluntary basis, Keffer said. “I really feel it’s going in that direction anyway. We are monitoring their efforts.”
Lawmakers want to avoid passing a bill that requires drillers to do it. “Sometimes, when you try to legislate a particular measure, you introduce more problems,” Keffer said.
Environment Texas is of a different mindset. Metzger said the organization is planning to ask at the next legislative session that the Texas Legislature require drillers to recycle all fracking wastewater onsite.
Crisis also can mean opportunity
The natural gas industry acknowledges that there needs to be some restrictions on its water use. “But it should really be a state issue,” Bell said. “States know what is best to do. The federal government should not get involved.”
Bell said as far as she knows, so far the federal government has not restricted water use by drillers.
And though it is the states’ job to help make sure drillers are “good citizens,” Keffer acknowledged that natural gas drilling also comes with its paybacks.
“Texas has benefited greatly from the oil and gas activity insofar as the economy with jobs and the tax dollars these companies contribute,” Keffer said.
And if done responsibly, the entire country can benefit from the natural gas drilling, Keffer argued.
“It’s amazing — these different deposits that are being found around the country,” he said. “Especially when you consider that 20 to 25 years ago, they were warning the [oil and gas] industry that these resources are played out and you should start looking into something else. This is a real boon for our country, but the companies need to learn to work within the confines of the laws of the state.”
— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T
©2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.