Fracking gives Texas another oil boom, but at huge water cost

Jun 29 2011 - 3:19pm

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A fence surrounds a water pit being used by an oil and gas company while conducting hydraulic fracturing operations. The water is being pumped directly out of an aquifer. (SHNS photo by Patrick Dove / San Angelo Standard-Times)
A fence surrounds a water pit being used by an oil and gas company while conducting hydraulic fracturing operations. The water is being pumped directly out of an aquifer. (SHNS photo by Patrick Dove / San Angelo Standard-Times)

CROCKETT COUNTY, Texas -- Plastic-lined pits holding millions of gallons of blue-green water are tucked away in fields chock-full of withering mesquite trees.

After the driest eight-month period in Texas' recorded history, this barren ranch land has become inhospitable to even the most drought-resistant vegetation.

So where, amid the severe dry spell, did all this pristine water come from?

The query probably would not have been raised in non-drought times in this oil-friendly community.

But as West Texas' reservoirs run dry, cities are scouring the region for their next water supply, and farmers are becoming more desperate for rainfall, oil companies here and elsewhere are pumping out millions of gallons of freshwater from underground aquifers.

The purpose: To break loose rocks to get at trapped underground oil. The water is mixed with toxic chemicals and sand, and pumped into wells at high pressure to fracture the rock to expose the oil.

It can take millions of gallons of fluid to hydraulically fracture, or "frack," a single well. Only about 20 percent to 25 percent on average of the water is recovered, while the rest disappears underground, never to be seen again.

The Texas Water Development Board estimates the total amount of water used for fracking statewide in 2010 was 13.5 billion gallons. That's likely to more than double by 2020, and decline gradually each decade after that until dropping back down to current levels between 2050 and 2060.

"We're using scarce resources to get scarce resources," said John Christmann, Permian Region vice president for Apache Corp., a Houston-based oil and gas company that operates in almost every West Texas county.

Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, an advocacy group for oil and gas producers, said fracking has led to a second oil boom in West Texas by opening up "previously unrecoverable" oil reserves. Several years ago, fracking was used primarily to extract natural gas, but oil companies eventually found it was just as effective for making oil flow.

The technology has brought more and more operators back to the Permian Basin over the past decade to revisit mature oil fields that everyone thought had been tapped out.

Shepperd estimates fracking is performed on at least 75 percent of the wells drilled in the Permian Basin these days -- probably more.

And that translates into a massive consumption of water.

Most estimates show the amount of water required to frack a well is 50,000 gallons to 4 million gallons, depending on the nature of the rock being penetrated. But some show per-well use can be as high as 13 million gallons.

By most accounts, almost all the water being used for fracking in Texas is fresh water, as opposed to the non-potable brackish water that often is found deeper underground.

Some operators purchase water from landowners or even cities and truck it in. But most forgo the added expense and drill water wells on site, store the water in pits temporarily and then haul it in trucks to oil well sites, where it is kept in 20,000-gallon tanks before it is turned into "frack fluid" and shot back into the ground.

Industry officials say use of fresh water, at least in Texas, is less a matter of easy access or cost than effectiveness.

"For some purposes, brackish water is just fine, but for fracking and given the specific sort of engineering and pressure they're using, it's better to have fewer impurities in the water, so fresh water works better," Shepperd said.

He said he doesn't know of any company in West Texas that uses brackish water, which he notes is "very, very plentiful."

Amid the brutal drought, competing users and local groundwater conservation districts in this part of the state see the industry's unregulated, gluttonous use of fresh water as a huge problem.

"I want them to quit using fresh water for fracking," said Slate Williams, general manager of the Crockett Groundwater Conservation District.

The issue also has gotten the attention of the state legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, who recently signed a bill that will require companies to disclose how much water they use in fracking treatments on each well.

As oil production has picked up in the past two years, Williams said he has heard from a growing number of ranchers and landowners who never had experienced drawdown on their private wells but now are having problems with diminished flows.

Williams said the only visible change, other than the severity of this particular dry spell, is the increasing amount of water being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity Plateau Aquifer, a massive, 34,000-square-mile water-bearing formation.

He said the level of the aquifer has declined steadily over the past decades and that it recharges locally only when Crockett County has received at least 80 percent of its 15-inch average annual rainfall.

Since October, the county has received less than 2 inches of rain.

"It is declining year after year, so fracking or any little thing makes it speed up that much more," Williams said.

Williams said water use for fracking could soon make up more than 25 percent of Crockett County's annual water use.

Williams isn't anti-oil but says there is a limited amount of fresh water available to sustain the area's ranching and "quality of life" and that companies have other options available to them, including the use of brackish water.

"We don't want to stop them from drilling, but water is a scarce resource that we can't do without," he said.

Dr. Marcus Sims, who owns a small ranch north of Ozona, said the volume of water coming from the well he uses to water his livestock is the weakest it has been since he bought the land in 2001.

Sims said he is not sure what to attribute it to -- the drought or the increased pumping for oil production -- and he doesn't have a problem with landowners selling water or companies making a profit by using it.

However, he said he thinks eventually "the oil and gas companies are going to have to figure out a way to use something besides fresh water."

"Until it becomes economically in their best interest, they're going to stay with what they're doing," Sims said.

"I'm a capitalist person, and you do what's most economically feasible for your business to make a profit, and I don't have a problem with anybody making a profit. But if it depletes the underground water tables, then we're all going to have a problem," he said.

(Kiah Collier reports for the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas, at www.texaswest.com.)

 

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