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Water Footprint of Fracking Operations Rises Dramatically

The volume of water that is used in each well to extract oil during the hydraulic fracturing process has surged dramatically since 2011, rising by an alarming 770% by 2016 across all the main oil and gas production regions across the US, a new study has revealed.

In addition to the surge in water usage, the study also shows that the volume of wastewater laden with brine and potentially harmful chemicals generated during fracking operations has risen by as much as 1440% over the same time-frame.

If fracking operations intensify at the current rate, the industry's water footprint is likely to increase 50-fold by 2030, fueling concerns regarding the sustainability of these operations, particularly in the drier regions of the country or areas that are already water stressed.

"Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment."After more than a decade of fracking operation, we now have more years of data to draw upon from multiple verifiable sources. We clearly see a steady annual increase in hydraulic fracturing's water footprint, with 2014 and 2015 marking a turning point where water use and the generation of flowback and produced water began to increase at significantly higher rates," Vengosh said.

According to Vengosh, the efficiency of unconventional gas and oil extraction has improved over the years as overall production has increased. However, the volume of both the water used during the oil and gas extraction process, and the wastewater generated as a result, has increased significantly, driving the industry's water footprint upwards.

Af Peter Aengst - The Wilderness Society, CC BY-SA 4.0, Af Peter Aengst - The Wilderness Society, CC BY-SA 4.0,

For the study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Science Advances, the researchers reviewed six years of water use, wastewater generation and oil and gas production data collected from non-profit, government and industry sources for over 12,000 oil and gas wells located across the major tight oil and shale gas producing regions in the US. Using this historical data set, they modeled future water usage and first-year wastewater production volumes, looking at two different scenarios.

Their models reveal that should oil and gas prices, which are currently low, start to rise again with a simultaneous rise in production to volumes similar to those seen during fracking's peak, cumulative water usage and wastewater production could rise as much as 20-fold in regions where unconventional oil is extracted and as much as 50-fold in regions where unconventional gas is extracted. According to lead author, Andrew Kondash, the models show that even if oil and gas prices and production rates remain the same as they are now, the volume of water used and wastewater produced will still increase sharply by 2030.

The wastewater produced as a byproduct of the fracking process contains water that was injected into the wells under pressure during the fracking process in order to crack open fissures in the rock to release the oil and gas. When this water is pumped out again it contains a large percentage of brines that together with the oil and gas are extracted from rocks and soil deep underground. These brines have a high salt content and can also contain harmful chemicals and radioactive elements, which makes treating and disposing of them safely difficult. To get around this issue, many oil and gas companies inject the wastewater back into the ground via wastewater wells. Yet while this may prevent the wastewater from contaminating local freshwater supplies, it has been associated with an increase in earthquakes at some locations.

"New drilling technologies and production strategies have spurred exponential growth in unconventional oil and gas production in the United States and, increasingly, in other parts of the world," Kondash said. "This study provides the most accurate baseline yet for assessing the long-term environmental impacts this growth may have, particularly on local water availability and wastewater management."

The lessons learned locally in the United States can help other countries, such as Mexico, Argentina and China, make informed decisions when planning and implementing fracking operations to exploit their natural gas resources in the future.

Journal Reference

Andrew J. Kondash, Nancy E. Lauer, Avner Vengosh. The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing. Science Advances, August 17, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar5982

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