Don't blame frackers for U.S. water shortages
For 25 years, U.S. specialists in international relations have been predicting water shortages will become a source of conflict.
But the real water wars are brewing at home, where farmers, environmentalists and the oil and gas industry are falling out over water supplies in the drought-stricken Southwest.
Hydraulic fracturing uses enormous quantities of water to shatter shale and other tight rock formations by pumping millions of gallons of water deep underground under intense pressure.
Most of the water employed in America's energy revolution is fresh water taken from the same aquifers used by farmers and homeowners to irrigate their fields and lawns, as well as for drinking and washing.
And many wells are being drilled in parts of the United States such as Texas and Colorado that are suffering from a prolonged drought, where the water table has been falling because water withdrawals have been exceeding the rate at which aquifers are recharged by rainfall.
"Hydraulic fracturing is largely taking place in regions already experiencing high competition for water," according to Ceres, an influential non-profit organisation focused on climate, water and sustainability issues that advises major institutional investors.
"Policymakers are increasingly recognising that regional economic reliance on groundwater in many regions may not be sustainable and that groundwater withdrawals by all users must be carefully balanced," Ceres wrote in a report on "Hydraulic fracturing and water stress" published on Wednesday.
Between January 2011 and May 2013, almost 100 billion gallons of water were used to fracture 39,000 oil and gas wells, according to an analysis by Ceres of well records submitted to the industry's FracFocus registry.
On average, each well used 2.5 million gallons of fresh water. The total consumption was equivalent to the annual water needs of 55 small cities with an average population of 50,000.
The problem with using fresh water for fracking is that it becomes contaminated with oil, salt and chemicals and must then be injected into disposal wells so deep that it never returns to the fresh water supply.
Ceres argues that the best way to understand the scale on which water competition and risks are occurring is local, which makes some sense because water supplies are usually managed at the state and county level, and it is normally uneconomic to transport water over long distances.
Based on frack registry data, Ceres has identified 32 counties in which more than 1 billion gallons of water have been used for fracking. A billion gallons is roughly equivalent to the daily water use of the 8 million residents of New York City.
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