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Water Issues Associated with Hydraulic Fracturing


Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", is a vertical or horizontal drilling process wherein fresh water, sand and a cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are pumped into the ground under extremely high pressure to fracture shale layers allowing trapped natural gas to escape where it can be recovered, refined and taken to commercial markets for use in homes, automobiles, industrial and commercial plants and other applications that may otherwise require the use of oil or coal to provide power that we need in our daily lives. The process necessitates drilling deep into the earth's layers penetrating water tables in the process to reach gas trapped a mile or more below the surface.

The two primary water issues associated with fracking are (1) the use of a large amount of fresh water that becomes contaminated and which can never again be used by humans, animals or plants for any purpose, and (2) the necessity of protecting underground water tables and surface water resources from contamination by fracking fluids and/or migrating gas deposits (including radioactive elements such as radon) that render the water unsafe for use.

Water is a precious and limited resource that is in high demand and diminishing supply. Our planet is 75% water, and the human body is 50-70% water1. It is an essential element of our very existence, and without it we would surely become as extinct as the dinosaurs whose decaying bodies created the fossil fuels such as natural gas that we seek to use today. We must take the issue of available fresh water supplies and contamination of those supplies very seriously at the risk of terminating our own species from the face of the earth.

The total amount of water on Earth is about 1.4 billion km3(cubic kilometers). The amount of freshwater resources is around 35 million km3, or about 2.5 percent of the total quantity. Of these freshwater resources, about 24 million km3, or 70 percent, is in the form of ice and permanent snow cover in mountainous regions, the Antarctic and Arctic regions.

Around 30 percent of the world's freshwater is stored underground in the form of groundwater (shallow and deep groundwater basins up to 2,000 meters, soil moisture, swamp water and permafrost.) This constitutes about 97 percent of all the freshwater that is potentially available for human use.

Freshwater lakes and rivers contain an estimated 105,000 km3, or around 0.3 percent, of the world's freshwater. The Earth's atmosphere contains approximately 13,000 km3 of water. But, those rivers and lakes are precisely where humans get the vast majority of water that we use in our daily lives. Obviously, protecting that fragile supply is critical to our survival. Yet, we allow fracking on or near vital water supplies without a second thought as if we have an inexhaustable supply of this precious commodity at our disposal.

The total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is about 200,000 km3of water - less than 1 percent of all freshwater resources (about 0.025 percent of all water on earth.)2.

The process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas well production requires the use of between 1.5 and 9 million gallons of fresh water for every fracture in most regions. The Eagle Ford Shale region of West Texas requires about 13 million gallons per frac. Chesapeake Energy's website states that it uses an average of 4.5 million gallons of fresh water for each fractured well3, and that amount is used each time the well is fractured. Industry claims that many gas wells have a useful production life of 20 to 40 year, and must be re-fractured every 3 to 5 years in order to maintain an economically viable production flow. That calculates to fresh water usage of at least 6 million gallons per well minimum to more than 120 million gallons per well maximum, with an average of about 30 to 50 million gallons per well over its useful production life. There are currently over 200,000 natural gas wells in the United States, over 48,000 of which are located in Texas.

In fact, well production depletes by 70% in the first year, and after 3-5 years viable flow is highly unlikely. Current technology does not provide a cost effective method of further extraction, so industry claims about the life of a gas well are false and are used only to lure in unsuspecting investors and to get mineral owners to allow exploration and production on their property.

Of the metered sources in the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, Barnett Shale drillers used 1,146,598,272 gallons of water and paid .00022 cents per gallon in 2009. Major Texas aquifers are running low on fresh water (see Upper Trinity River Conservation District website for details.) No details are available for unmetered sources such as rivers and creeks for which drillers pay nothing, yet use tremendous amounts of fresh water that is permanently removed from the water table. Major American cities are running out of fresh water, and Fort Worth is Number 6 on the Top Ten list.

Fresh water is generally taken from local lakes, rivers, creeks and streams, usually free of charge to the gas well producers, though some producers do pay local entities a very low rate for some of the water they consume. But, that water does come at a heavy price to citizens of our nation. The first cost is the amount of water depleted from the water table that normally provides fresh water for residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural use at a time when fresh water is frequently in short supply and consumers are paying ever higher prices for municipal water services. Producers like to claim that the amount of water they use is small compared to that of other users, but most water used by cities, industry, agriculture, etc. is recoverable and treatable for reuse, whereas fracking water cannot ever be used again.

In the Eagle Ford Shale of West Texas this is particularly troubling because rainfall there is rare and precious. Since October 1, 2010, only about 2 inches of rain has fallen in that area. Texas is facing the worst drought in recorded history, and aquifers in West Texas are dangerously low - in some cases having less than 30 days supply of fresh water. Without additional rainfall local residents will be forced to buy and truck in water from outside sources. Mining or frac'ing operations will deplete what little water remains in the aquifers to sustain life in a brutal desert region. The Texas state climatologist has publicly stated that the current drought may last another 5 to 15 years!

Bruce Frasier, owner of Dixonville Farms, is a cantaloupe grower in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where water is the scarcest commodity. Frac'ing in the Eagle Ford Shale uses about 13 million gallons of fresh water for ever frac job. Just three years ago no price was offered for Frasier's water from his wells. Now, energy companies are offering 70 cents per 42 gallon barrel, but Frasier is refusing to sell because he needs that water for his livelihood and his family. This typifies the demand for water in areas where severe drought leaves precious little of it for survival.

The second cost of gas well producers using fresh water for their operations is the damage to city, county, state and federal roadways caused by heavy trucks hauling fresh water, fracking chemicals and equopment to, and contaminated water (referred to in the industry as "produced water") away from well sites for what is supposed to be safe disposal deep into the earth's rock and soil layers far beneath water tables that provide fresh water to municipal water systems and rural water wells.

The third cost is that of permanently lost water. "Produced water" becomes so contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic fracking fluids such as benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, arsenic, barium, chromium, cadmium, lead, mercury, strontium, selenium, diesel, aluminum, radioactive radon gas, methane gas, hydrosulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, citric acid, 2-butoxyethanol, monoethanolamine, ethylhexanol, dazomet, formaldehyde, acetic anhydride, glutaraldehyde, isopropanol, boric acid, propargyl alcohol, ethane-1,2-diol (ethylene glycol), 5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazotin-3-one, ethylene glycol, sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), methanol, just to name a few of the more than 900 chemicals that are used in the hydraulic fracturing process, depending upon location and shale type to be fractured.

Currently, there is no known method of purifying "flowback water" or "produced water" to ever make it safe for human, animal or plant use again, and so all water used in the fracking process is forever lost to our needs for fresh water, often at no cost to the gas well producers. Worse still is the fact that the Energy Act of 2005 specifically exempted the gas industry from having to report the toxins used in their processes under requirements of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, effectively tying the hands of the EPA to closely regulate the industry.

Of the water that goes down the well bore as a medium for the fracking process only about 20-50% returns to the surface. The balance remains in the well bore and in the fractured shale layers where it can migrate horizontally and vertically into water tables and even eventually into the top soil and open air. Of the "recovered" water that does come back up, it is stored in tanks or often in lined or unlined above-ground pits until it can be pumped into tanker trucks and hauled off for deep well injection far below the earth's surface. Some of the flowback water spills onto the ground around well pads where it contaminates the local area and possibly produces adverse health effects for rig workers. Many cases have been documented where tankers leaked, where valves were accidentally or intentionally opened allowing the "produced water" to flow out onto roadways and roadsides, where traffic accidents resulted in massive spills, or where that water was illegally dumped onto private or public land or into rivers, lakes or streams rather than being pumped into injection wells, as claimed by drilling operators (see videos.

Water Issues Associated with hydraulic Fracturing

The Trinity River Basin provides drinking water to approximately 50% of all Texas residents4. Another 16% are served by the Brazos River Basin5. Together, two thirds of all Texas residents depend upon the Trinity and Brazos Rivers and their water tables for fresh water to drink, prepare foods, bathe, do laundry, wash cars, water lawns, supply to pets and farm animals, raise crops for personal consumption or commercial distribution and other uses. Additionally, a significant amount of feral and wild animals, birds, fish and other living things depend upon these same waters for their very survival.

Globally, fresh water supplies are very limited, and in some areas almost non-existent. Fights over water rights exist between neighboring states in the United States and around the world. Fights between nations over access to fresh water supplies are occurring on a more frequent basis, and will continue to increase as fresh water becomes an even more limited commodity. Droughts, which are frequent in Texas, leave our water tables very low, often resulting in fire bans, lawn watering and other non-essential water use bans, lower water quality and rising prices for municipal water delivery.

884 million people aound the world lack access to safe water supplies - approximately one in every eight people6. 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease7.

The Barnett Shale region of Texas and the Haynesville Shale area along the Texas-Louisiana border are the two important shale gas basins serving the Lone Star State (see map below.)

US shale gas basin map

Throughout Texas and across the nation natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing has been proven to contaminate water tables, water wells of rural residents, ground water sources (lakes, river, creeks, etc.), air and soil, often with negative impacts on human, animal and plant health, and declining property values. Fracking has been the cause of methane and radon gas migration into water tables resulting in well and home explosions, and many people have demonstrated the ability to ignite water from their home faucets and outdoor water resources such as ponds and creeks using a conventional cigarette lighter (see videos of these problems.)

Animals have been sickened and killed by groundwater contamination resulting from fracking and caused by leaking cement casings, broken or leaking pipes, flowback water spilled or stored in surface pits and other careless exposures caused by gas well producers operating without a concern for public health, property values or environmental damage (see videos of these problems.)

It would be difficult to live without the benefits of oil and natural gas, but it can be done. This planet existed and survived for well over 4 billion years without using fossil fuels, the last 200,000 years or so which has included homo sapien existence, though today such an idea would be unthinkable. But, we cannot survive without clean water and air, both of which are frequently and disastrously polluted by fracking chemicals and "produced water", as well as vented and flared gas releases into our atmosphere. To be sure, it is illegal to release harmful emissions into the atmosphere, but regulatory agencies lack the resources or resolve to monitor and enforce existing state and federal laws requiring safe operation of gas wells. Indeed, many of those delegated the responsibilities for regulating the oil and gas industry are influenced by benefits they receive from those they are supposed to regulate, as was demonstrated with the Mining and Minerals Administration during the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

We simply cannot afford to sicken and kill our citizens, domestic pets, livestock and plantlife for the sake of "cheap, domestic" fossil fuels that "break our dependence upon foreign oil." We must demand that our elected and appointed leaders, from our cities and counties to our statehouses to our federal government, be knowledgeable, equipped with everything they need and given the power and authority to strictly enforce ALL environmental laws designed to protect us from unscrupulous commercial operators who destroy lives and property for the sake of shareholder equity. Our government representatives are placed in office to serve and protect us, not to facilitate greed and corruption by industries that profit at our expense.

If natural gas can safely be extracted from the earth by hydraulic fracturing (or any other method) so that we get the benefits without having to absorb the disastrous consequences, then who could oppose it? But, if drilling cannot be done in ways that protect our water and air, and thus protect us and our property values, then it is past time to move on down the road toward clean, renewable, sustainable alternatives that are safer and homegrown. We simply cannot afford to allow the financial benefits of the few to override the health and safety of the majority.


See related story:
Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country

Footnotes:

1 Physioweb
2 United States Geological Survey
3 Hydraulic Fracturing
4 Trinity River Authority
5 Brazos River Authority
6
7 

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