Fracking Uses a Lot More Water Than It Did 5 Years Ago

Fracking operations in the Bakken region in North Dakota.
Fracking operations in the Bakken region in North Dakota.
Photo: Avner Vengosh Vengosh (Courtesy of Duke University)

Public concern over hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking) has often focused on the potential for this extractive process to pollute waterways. Well, a new study reminds us that fracking is messing with our water in more ways than one.


Published in Science Advances Wednesday, this study found that more and more water has been used for fracking since 2011, when the United States began to really ramp up oil and gas extraction via this method.

Fracking involves drilling into the ground and using large amounts of water and chemicals to stimulate the flow of oil and gas from rocks like shale. Often times, operators are using groundwater, surface water, or some type of freshwater to do this—water that people could use for drinking, said lead study author Andrew Kondash, a PhD candidate at Duke University’s School of Earth and Ocean Science.

To understand how water use for fracking has changed as the industry has expanded in the US, the authors pulled data on water use and production volumes for fracking at over 12,000 wells from a range of sources, including state databases and the public FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry. While the water use per well increased in each of the six production regions examined, the spike varied depending on where in the researchers looked. In the Permian Basin, which sits on Texas and New Mexico, water use per well increased by 770 percent from 2011 to 2016. The Marcellus region near Pennsylvania and West Virginia, on the other hand, only saw just a 20 percent jump.

Given the number of resources the study includes, the paper does acknowledge the potential for bias and error. And while a pattern clearly showed an increase in water usage across the board, the team has yet to fully comprehend why or how.

Water usage in fracking has increased, and many of our shale resources happen to be in areas already dealing with water stress.
Water usage in fracking has increased, and many of our shale resources happen to be in areas already dealing with water stress.
Image: Courtesy of Duke University

“Part of it can just be attributed to the geology of the area,” Kondash told Earther.


Where the shale is drier (in, say, the Marcellus region), less water is needed to fracture a rock formation. The other piece of the puzzle is the lengths of newer wells. In the five-year study period, the median length of horizontal wells used for fracking also increased, though those increases didn’t match up perfectly with the water usage data. Still, the longer the well, the more water necessary to reach and fracture the rock.

Different companies also have different techniques, and some could be trying out a more water-intensive form of fracking, Kondash said.


On a national scale, the impact of fracking on water use doesn’t stand out much when compared to other industrial water uses, like watering golf courses or agricultural crops, for example. However, the impacts of increased water use can be felt more locally, especially as climate change worsens droughts in the West and makes water an even hotter commodity.

“[This paper] provides a number of both challenges and opportunities,” Kondash told Earther.


On the opportunity side, the study points to another reason to look at alternative energy sources or, at the very least, alternative water sources. Some wells use recycled wastewater instead of freshwater, but a lot of energy is needed to filter this water, which the study found is also being produced in higher quantities. Still, the study’s authors urge legislators to look to alternative water sources like recycled wastewater, or even brackish water instead of freshwater.

Kondash hopes legislators “wake up” to what’s happening within the fracking industry. This water might be a small drop in the greater bucket of water usage in the U.S., but this study could help dictate where our leaders take the practice next.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

I believe when the oil patch says the formation is drier, they mean the kerogen (in situ state of the organic molecules imbibed in the shale pores) will produce mostly gases and some condensate, i.e. Marcellus in Appalachia. A wet shale formation usually means its oily liquids rich, i.e. Bakkan up in North Dakota. Marcellus is getting wetter with time and producing more light hydrocarbon liquids. Some formation like those in Texas have portions that are wet, mixed and dry. This has to do with how mother nature cooks here dead organic matter over time and space.

Shale well horizontal runs have more than doubled on average over the past 10 or so years. For example, the Marcellus wells started around 5,000 feet of horizontal run. Now they are greater than 10,000 feet. Many are closer to 15,000 feet.

The most important reason for an increase in water use is the number of fracture stages along the horizontal run has increased, i.e. distance between fracturing stages has decreased resulting in more fracture stages per well. Back around 2009 drillers use to fracture about every 400 to 500 feet or so. Now they’re fracturing as close as 100 to 150 feet between stage. So doubling in length and tribling in number of fractures could result in about six times more water use over the past 10 years or so.

Another reason for increase water use is that drillers are clustering wells closer and closer together.

And of course there’s re-fracturing of wells.

Oil and gas fracking is essentially in-situ ball milling. Ball milling is used to break up ore host rock to let the metal leach out easier. Fracturing basically reduces the distance a hydrocarbon molecule has to travel through the ultra low permeability rock towards the well sink (fractures).

The only way to get the oil patch to use less water is to regulate the living fucking snot out of drilling. Duke University has done fine work with fracking, but it really doesn’t mean dick as long as the school’s research work is not actionable. You need a regulating agency to redo Dukes work and then administer the findings. Oil and gas production is on a state by state basis as far as regulation.

So these studies get filed, the grad student graduates, and fracking goes apeshit. Hell, even EDF (big green) has the father of fracking George Mitchell’s granddaughter on its board of directors and they haven’t been able to do shit about oil and gas production, with nary a care for environmental regulations. As long as environmental monitoring stays in academia and nonprofits - it’s safe for industry to go balls deep.