Jesse Jenkins of the Energy Collective ponders the question. He reports as follows:

  • According to the US Energy Information Administration 27,000 new gas wells were completed in the U.S. in 2011, many of which were horizontal wells implementing hydraulic fracturing.
  • Each well consumes 5 million gallons of water per well for fracking and completion. He quotes (more about which later), which reports 2 million gallons per frac job, but some wells are fracked more than once and there may be what he calls “some inherent downward bias in the voluntary nature of the FracFocus data set”. Thus, Jenkins uses 5 million.and concludes that fracking in 2011 consumed 135 billion gallons of water.
  • In context, how much is that? Jenkins assumes that in 2005 (latest data available) all freshwater withdrawals total 127,750 billion gallons. Assuming that is a fair baseline, fracking of shale gas wells in the United States in 2011 represented on the order of .1% of total U.S. freshwater withdrawals.
  • Withdrawals do not equal consumption. For example, water used in power plant cooling is discharged back into waterways without contamination or treatment.
  • He concludes that freshwater consumption (either evaporated or contaminated in storage) totaled 43,800 billion gallons. Thus, consumption for shale wells is .3% of total freshwater consumption.
  • Agriculture consumes, by far, the greatest amount of water, totaling 32,850 billion gallons of water annually, which is 243 times more water than fracking for shale gas.
  • Those of you among us who like to spoil an otherwise nice walk in the country might wonder about golf courses. According to the PGA, golf courses consume .5% of all freshwater used in the country.
  • Jenkins emphasizes efforts to commercialize recycling technology to reclaim a portion of frac water flowback that could reduce net freshwater consumption by about 20%. And companies such as GasFrac are working on waterless fracking in a process using Liquified Petroleum Gas gel.

On the other hand, where fracking takes place complicates the equation. CERES , a non-profit organization focusing on sustainability challenges such as climate change and water scarcity”, issued a report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water”. According to CERES, 47% of fracked wells are in water basins with high or extremely high water stress. In Colorado, it is 92%. Couple this with the U.S EIA prediction that shale gas production will constitute 49% of U.S. gas production by 2035, and the challenges become acute.

 Takeways from the CERES report:

  • State regulators should implement rules that encourage recycling of frac water.
  • Operators in high water-stress areas should get buy-in on water issues from local stakeholders.
  • Mandatory reporting of water use is necessary.
  • Operators and water regulators should conduct sufficient water management planning.   

My money, if I had any left after two college tuitions, would be on technological and regulatory advances that will mitigate the stress fracking places on our groundwater supplies.