20 September 2014

The Fracking world of gas and oil production gets considerable attention on the internet and newspapers. Locally, the Athens News and Athens Messenger also offer regular coverage and the coverage is not always just on local developments and issues. Fracking and related issues are being reported all across the U.S. Some of the news is about the booming output of shale gas and shale (or tight) oil and the economic benefits. But a lot of the reports are about the harmful health and environmental impacts. Among the latter, the well-justified concern about water use in fracking is particularly salient. Why? Just one drilling operation for shale gas may require from 2 million 4 million or more gallons of water, along with an array of chemicals, some known to be toxic, and a large quantity of sand.



Still, to be balanced in its coverage, the Athens Messenger reprinted an upbeat editorial from Bloomberg.org (2-27-14) on how the shale gas industry is on the way to employing recycling methods to reduce the amount of water the industry uses in the fracking process. (Source)



In the article, the Bloomberg editors’ point out that 10 to 50 percent of the water flowing back through the well can potentially be “cleaned of chemical additives as well as metals and minerals from deep underground” and then reused. The editors recommend that this practice could be encouraged by requiring drillers to provide water-use plans before they obtain government permission to set up their operations. But drillers would face a steep cost increase if they were to recycle on the scale necessary to have a net positive environmental effect.



The idea of recycling wastewater from fracking is akin to the greenwashing we read about when oil corporations started deceptively to advertise themselves as “green.” Similarly, the idea of recycling wastewater from horizontal hydraulic fracturing has the ring of a similar public relations gimmick. Maybe we should blow their cover by calling it frackwashing.



One recent report is by Ceres.org (Ceres green investor network). The title of the 85-page report is “Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water by the Numbers.” (You can find a link to the full report here.)



The researchers at Ceres find: (1) “Nearly half (47%) of oil and gas wells recently hydraulically fractured in the U.S. are in regions with high or extremely high water stress.” (2) “More than 55% of all U.S. wells are in areas experiencing drought.”(3) “36% of all U.S. wells are in areas experiencing groundwater depletion.” The report also finds that, as an example, some oil and gas producers in Pennsylvania have been recycling, but the savings have been too little to offset the huge demand for water for fracking in coming years.



Writing for the Texas Observer (2-4-14), Forrest Weber refers to a “newly-published study of fracking-related water use in the North Texas’ Barnett Shale [that] provides new insights into what has been a murky topic.” Weber identifies that source: “Authored by researchers at the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology and published in Environmental Science and Technology, the paper describes the Barnett Shale as an ‘ideal case’ to try to get a better understanding of how much water is being used in fracking, the source of the water, how much is actually recycled and how much of the wastewater ends up in injection wells—pressing questions in drought-stricken Texas.” He’s chief point is that the researchers “found that the vast majority of water, about 92 percent, used to frack Barnett Shale wells in 2011 was ‘consumed’—never to return to the aquifer or reservoir again. Only around 5 percent of all the water has been reused or recycled ‘for the past few years.’ The remainder, about 3 percent, came from brackish water sources. The figures suggest that the industry is making very little progress in conserving water, despite a push from regulators and lawmakers to encourage the practice.” (Source.)



What’s the implication? The water-loaded fracking process, and the many other problematic issues related to fracking, should not be overshadowed in the news by some band-aid “solutions on water recycling.