Green Right Now Reports

Gas Drilling in Permian Basin

This map cut out shows the intensively drilled Permian Basin in Texas (wells in black) which overlays the Ogallala Aquifer (in red). The Ogallala, a major source of drinking and irrigation water, is fast being depleted.

Business investment group CERES sounded the alarm Wednesday, issuing a major report about the billions of gallons of fresh water being lost to natural gas fracking operations across the United States and in Canada.

CERES researchers evaluated oil and gas water use in eight regions, concluding that gas companies need to improve their water conservation and investors should take heed of the risks involved with fracking in arid and water-stressed regions.

Some of the findings of Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress:

  •  Nearly half of the wells that have been hydraulically fractured (fracked) since 2011 were in areas that face high “water stress.”
  • 55 percent of the wells drilled were in areas experiencing drought.
  • Nearly all the wells in Colorado and California (97 and 96 percent respectively) were in regions of high or extremely high water stress.
  • In New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the majority of wells were in “high or extremely high water stress.”
  • In Texas, which has the most hydraulic fracturing in the U.S., more than half of the wells examined (52 percent) were in “high or extremely high water stress” regions. (Extremely high water stress was defined as meaning that more than 80 percent of available surface and groundwater is already committed to municipal, industrial and agricultural uses.)
  • Six counties in Texas (Karnes, Gonsales, Glassock, Irion, Reagan and DeWitt) were found to have the highest water stress combined with high water use for hydraulic fracturing. Two counties in Colorado (Garfield and Weld) completed the list of the top counties in which high water stress intersected with high water use for fracking.

The report called Texas “ground zero” for water competition between natural gas concerns and others needing water.

“Water competition challenges are already arising with several shale-producing counties operating under water emergencies, leaving shale producers scrambling to develop alternatives to freshwater sources. Tackling these challenges is made more difficult by the industry’s overall poor disclosure on water use, especially groundwater use which has especially weak disclosure and permitting requirements,” wrote study author, Monika Freyman.


Drilling areas are shown in black, overlaid by the reds and yellows, with dark red showing the areas of highest water stress.

Freyman also detailed the competition for water in agricultural California, where nearly all of the drilling is in areas of extreme water stress.

But while the maps developed by CERES and the World Resources Institute clearly show drilling poses a threat to water in the Western U.S., it also reveals water stress regions in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Some of those water risk areas are in Pennsylvania, near ongoing fracking operations, and in New York, which sits on the gas-rich Marcellus Shale,but currently has a moratorium on natural gas fracking.

GAS Wells near Aquifer Depletion - CERES report

Areas of aquifer depletion are shown in red; areas with natural gas fracking are in black. The large red area across the US midsection represents the Ogallala Aquifer, which is tapped for farming.

The researchers also looked at where the natural gas companies were obtaining water, finding that more than one-third of the 39,294 fractured wells in the study were accessing groundwater. In some areas, spanning Arkansas, West Texas and Nebraska, the groundwater already is being depleted, according to a map of aquifers developed by the US Geological Survey (shown above).

Fracking consumes a lot of water, an estimated 4 to 6 million gallons per well, because it is used to  blast open gas deposits trapped in shale rock thousands of feet beneath the surface. This fracking water is mixed with a variety of lubricants and antimicrobials as well as sand to make it more effective.

The contaminated waste water, known in the industry as “produced water” because it comes back up from the well after the rock has released the sought-after methane, is then either re-injected into “injection wells” or it is sent to a wastewater treatment plant.

Both methods of disposing of produced water have been criticized as failing to remove the toxics in the water from the environment. In the well storage, the toxics are left underground, where some fear they will migrate upward into the water table. This method, typical in the West and Southwest US, also has been blamed for causing small earthquakes that have damaged property in the vicinity.

In other areas, such as Pennsylvania, where significant fracking has occurred, concern has arisen that wastewater treatment plants cannot remove all the chemicals found in fracking water, in particular, the traces of radioactive uranium and other minerals that are released from buried rock during the drilling.

Aiming to inform investors, the report also listed the natural gas companies that it sees as facing the biggest problems ahead in accessing water. Those include the drillers that dominate in areas of high water stress such as Anadarko Petroleum, Apache, Encana and Pioneer. It also included Chesapeake, even though it drills in areas of medium water stress, it is “by far the biggest user of water,” according to the report.

It credited these companies with finding some ways to mitigate their high water use.

“Apache, for example, is recycling 100 percent of produced water in the Permian Basin. Anadarko and Shell are
buying effluent water from local municipalities. Chesapeake is reusing nearly 100 percent of its produced water and drilling wastewater in the Marcellus region,” Freyman wrote.

But, Freyman wrote, the companies need to do much more, and investors need to demand full disclosure on water practices and plans.

“Viewed more widely, however, water management best practices are lagging and no single technology alone—whether recycling, brackish water use or greater use of waterless hydraulic fracturing technology—will solve regional water sourcing and water stress problems. Ultimately, all shale operators and service providers should be deploying a variety of tools and strategies—including substantially improved operational practices related to water sourcing, more robust
stakeholder engagement, and stronger disclosure—to protect freshwater resources for the future.”

Some of the solutions the companies should embrace:

  • Disclose plans and targets for reducing water use and finding alternatives to freshwater use.
  • Minimize water use through recycling or sourcing from non-freshwater supplies.
  • Support projects that improve watersheds and aquifers.
  • Minimize the use of exemptions that allow tapping aquifers and minimize deep-well injection sites.