Oil and gas operators are on the verge of solving the only arguably legitimate objections raised against the practice of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production: earthquakes and water consumption. Innovation has brought good news to an industry that has a serious image problem despite the tremendous good it has done for our country.
Environmental lobbyists contend fracking pollutes the air and water, causes earthquakes, and will leave municipalities and farmers without sufficient water. But numerous studies from universities, science journals, and federal and various state governments have demonstrated fracking does not significantly contribute to air pollution. Other studies have shown fracking has not polluted water wells, drinking water, or irrigation water and remains unlikely to do so.
In the relatively few instances where fracking has been linked to water pollution, it has been attributed to bad operators–shoddy workmanship or poor materials–not fracking itself. In Pennsylvania, for example, of more than 20,000 oil and gas wells drilled using fracking since 2008, just 243 have been linked to water problems, and these were due to well leaks from cracks in pipes, poor cementing, or bad seals. Such problems are easily solved, and current techniques make mishaps even more unlikely.
Although fracking is not responsible for water or air pollution, some people still fear earthquakes associated with fracking activities. Research shows fracking itself is not causing tremors. Instead, in some areas, deep injection wastewater disposal wells for fracking fluids have caused minor earthquakes, small tremors that cause little property damage and no injuries or deaths.
Only wastewater wells located near fault lines have caused any tremors. Fracking operators have ways to prevent, reduce, or respond to the problem of tremors induced by wastewater reinjection. One approach is to bond operators so property owners are reimbursed or made whole for any damage. To avoid earthquake headaches, operators should avoid placing injection wells on sites with fault lines.
Another solution holds long-term promise: recycling. Killing two birds with one stone, recycling wastewater avoids the possibility of causing tremors while also reducing the demand for fresh water, leaving more water for other users.
The press has stoked fears fracking is draining areas already suffering from drought. But fracking doesn’t use much water relative to other uses. The research firm Energy In Depth found in 2011 all shale gas wells brought online in the United States used a total of approximately 135 billion gallons of water, about 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption. By comparison, 70 percent of the water used in the U.S. goes to agriculture.
The amount of water used for fracking isn’t even unusual for oil and gas production. A new study from the University of Texas at Austin found water used in hydraulic fracturing to produce oil ranged from 0.2 to 0.4 gallons of water for each gallon of oil produced over the lifetime of a well for the Eagle Ford and Bakken fields. Fracking for natural gas uses even less water. The recent increase in water use for oil production is due to increased domestic energy production, not more water used per well.
Still, each well does require three to six million gallons of water for drilling. Many areas with shale-rich deposits are naturally arid and, as in Texas, are experiencing extended droughts.
Many operators have concluded recycling is the best solution even though it is often expensive relative to storage or deep injection. In arid regions or areas facing extended drought, as aquifers drop and competition for water increases, prices are making recycling more attractive. Under public scrutiny and attendant political pressure, other operators are sure to follow.
This is a good thing. The invisible hand of the market encourages efficiency, and fracking operators will continually seek ways to reduce water use and recycle. Less water and no more earthquakes is a winning combination for a technology that could reduce energy poverty worldwide.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.