News Feature | December 9, 2013

Is Fracking Drinking Up More Water Than Anyone Thought?

By Sara Jerome


Fracking is more water-intensive than anyone realized, according to National Geographic

"It's well known that water has been key to the shale oil and gas rush in the United States. But in one center of the hydraulic fracturing boom—North Dakota—authorities are finding that the initial blast of water to frack the wells is only the beginning," the magazine reported

That's because the wells require something called "maintenance water" to ensure the oil keeps flowing, the report said. 

"While the water first pumped down the hole to crack rock formations and release the underground oil and natural gas typically totals 2 million gallons (7.5 million liters) per well, each of North Dakota's wells is daily drinking down an average of more than 600 gallons (2,300 liters) in maintenance water, according to recent calculations by North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources," the report said. 

Maintenance water is required to prevent salt from building up and blocking the flow of oil. It is not a small amount of water.

"Over the life of the well, which authorities presume will be 30 to 40 years, maintenance water needs could add up to 6.6 million to 8.8 million gallons (25 to 33.3 million liters)—or more than three to four times the water required for the initial fracking," the report said. 

Fracking opponents had already begun calling attention to water scarcity as a rallying point in their critiques of the controversial practice, and those criticisms are expected to become increasingly central to the debate.

Attorney Andrew Kirkendall examined the issue in Texas: "Texas has been suffering from a drought.  In some areas, it is the worst drought seen in two generations.  But the drought alone is not responsible for mounting water problems across the state.  Fracking or hydraulic fracturing, the process by which water mixed with sand is pumped underground to push oil and gas resources to the surface, is adding to the problem." 

The Texas Tribune explained that it is not the sheer amount of water, but the increase in water use, that raises concerns about fracking. 

"Studies say that fracking consumes less than 1 percent of the total water used statewide, far less than agriculture or even watering lawns. But in some drilling hotbeds like Dimmit County, the proportion of water used for fracking has reached the double digits and is growing along with the oil boom," the report said

That's a good thing for water recycling services, but those strategies are still far from perfected. "Companies are springing up to offer recycling, and some drillers are able to use brackish water, but those technologies are often not cost-effective," the report said. 

Image credit: "Frack pond Dish Texas," © 2012 Jeremy Buckingham, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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