As more data emerge, shale gas increasingly appears to be in the cross-hairs of the water-energy nexus, and far too little is being done to defuse impending conflicts.
While hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), the process used to unleash natural gas from shale deposits, has raised serious concerns about groundwater contamination, less attention has been given to the added competition for limited water supplies the process can bring.
Each fracking well can require up to 25 million liters (6.6 million gallons) of water.
A new study by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a research group based in Washington, DC, attempts to fill this knowledge gap by overlaying known recoverable resources, or “plays,” of shale gas onto maps of water stress. The results raise concerns.
The WRI team found that 38% of shale gas resources worldwide reside in areas that are either naturally arid, and so have limited water overall, or in areas with high to extremely high levels of water stress, which means that competition for water is already keen if not intense.
With some 386 million people living atop these shale-gas regions and agriculture the dominant water user in 40 percent of them, the stage is set for rising tensions as shale gas production competes with farmers and city dwellers for limited water.
Of the 20 countries with the largest shale gas resources believed to be technically recoverable, 8 are either in arid zones or already face high water-stress in the regions where those resources are located: Algeria, China, Egypt, India, Libya, Mexico, Pakistan and South Africa.
China, Mexico and South Africa have some of the largest shale gas plays in the world, but those gas resources are generally located in regions of high water stress. China alone is estimated to harbor as much shale gas as the United States and Mexico combined, but the majority of it resides in water-stressed zones.
(A similar study focused on just the United States published earlier this year by the research group Ceres found that nearly half of the US fracking wells in operation since 2011 are located in regions with high or extremely high water stress.)
For its analysis, WRI used data from its own Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas combined with information on the location of shale gas resources globally from West Virginia University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Viewed at the national or state level, hydraulic fracturing is typically not a big water user. Even in Texas, which is home to the vast Eagle Ford shale play, fracking accounts for less than 1% of total statewide water withdrawals.
But because fracking entails such a high intensity of water use—most of the millions of liters required per well are used in one day – it can seriously strain water availability locally where the fracking takes place. In three Texas counties atop the Eagle Ford shale basin, for example, the freshwater demands of hydraulic fracturing by 2020 are expected to surpass the total volume of water used for all purposes in those counties in 2008.
Without foresight, advance planning, and engagement with affected communities, such a rise in localized demand could create serious tensions between farmers, cities and energy producers, if not outright water shortages.
In South Africa, intense grassroots opposition to planned hydraulic fracturing in the semi-desert Karoo region led to a nationwide moratorium on fracking.
Authorities responsible for protecting water sources in regions with fracking potential have a responsibility to get ahead of the curve. Not every locale that can be fracked should be fracked. The risks of both groundwater contamination and water shortages should be assessed and taken into account.
During a briefing on the WRI study in Washington, DC yesterday (I participated via live webinar), Francis O’Sullivan with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, who was not a coauthor of the report, said that gas producers “have engendered a great deal of mistrust” due to their lack of transparency about their fracking operations. When problems are “hidden away,” he said, “it’s hard to work on them.”
In addition to greater transparency, the WRI report calls for water risk assessments, improved “water governance” to guarantee water security, and steps to minimize the use of freshwater – for example, through greater recycling of the water used (and contaminated) in the fracking process, or the substitution of low-quality brackish water for freshwater.
While certainly sensible and sorely needed, these recommendations would pack more punch if accompanied by calls to formalize these actions in a regulatory framework that makes them mandatory before fracking operations are permitted.
WRI’s Paul Reig, lead author of the study, said during the briefing that “industry is on a journey,” and while most energy producers realize the direction things are going, “it’s a slow process.”
With the quality and availability of scarce water at stake, it is reckless for society to allow shale-gas production to spread before water and health safeguards are in place.
And that requires enforceable regulation.
It’s up to government regulators, as custodians of the public trust in water, to act decisively – and urgently – to ensure that unconventional oil and gas production does not harm human health or community water security.
As MIT’s O’Sullivan said, the energy producers “will always report to what the regulators require. There’s a need for regulatory pull.”
Until sufficient transparency and regulatory oversight exist, communities potentially at risk are wise to push for moratoria on fracking.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.