Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

For folks in the sandy hills northwest of Dallas, it's a devil's bargain for gas, water and jobs.

Aside from the quantity of water being used in fracking, another important issue is disposal. The water used to frack isn't just absorbed into the earth; it shoots back up to the surface and becomes what the industry calls "flowback."

The problem is that little is known about what happens to the water once it's used to frack, both in terms of chemicals added by gas companies and the various chemicals deep in the earth. In the end, the water ascends back to the surface filled with toxic junk and an extremely high salt content — three times that of seawater.

Flowback is not suitable for treatment at water utility plants, and while some technology is being developed, there's nothing readily available at this time to filter the water. Sometimes the contaminated water is put in large storage tanks. In other situations it is left in large above-ground pits lined with plastic; after the water evaporates, the plastic is rolled up and buried underground in waste disposal areas.

Residents near Saint Jo organized quickly in opposition when they learned a sand mine was being constructed near their homes.
Mike Mezeul
Residents near Saint Jo organized quickly in opposition when they learned a sand mine was being constructed near their homes.
They fear for their water supplies and dread the big trucks that'll be hauling down their county roads.
Mike Mezeul
They fear for their water supplies and dread the big trucks that'll be hauling down their county roads.

Another popular method is injecting the water a mile and a half down into the earth using saltwater disposal systems. According to Chesapeake Energy, it has two saltwater injection wells operating at DFW airport to dispose of the flowback associated with the 200 wells planned on airport property.

In all, there are more than 50,000 of these injection wells in Texas, which are used solely for the oil and gas industry.

Dr. Hudak at UNT has doubts about this practice.

"When used freshwater is injected as 'waste' into deep rock formations, that water will not actively circulate through the hydrologic cycle," he says. "It will be stagnant and typically very saline, and it will not be available for human use for a very long time."

With more than 13 billion gallons of water used last year alone by oil and gas companies for fracking over the Barnett Shale, one has to ask: How can an industry draw such phenomenal amounts of a limited resource?

Dominating water law in Texas is the principle of "right of capture," otherwise known as the law of the biggest pump, which arose from a court case decided more than 100 years ago. In 1904, W.A. East sued the Texas railroad for draining his water well for their locomotives. The judges on the case ruled in favor of the railroad because underground water is "so secret, occult and concealed" that it would be impossible to regulate. Therefore, landowners have the right to capture any water running under their properties.

Today, however, underground water districts have been created throughout Texas to manage the resource, though whether they'll actually be able to do that is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court. The case of Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) v. Day involves two property owners who owned farms over the Edwards Aquifer in the city of Van Ormy, just south of San Antonio. The details of the case are complex, but in essence, they needed more water than what the Edwards Aquifer Authority allowed them. So, they sued, and the case has worked its way up to the Texas Supreme Court, where arguments were heard in January 2010. A ruling could be handed down any day.

Ronald Ruiz with the Edwards Aquifer Authority says the decision could be "landmark-type direction in ground water usage."

A ruling in favor of the authority would most likely allow water districts to continue the business of regulating water in priority areas where supply issues are critical. If the court rules in favor of the landowners, water management across the state could drastically change as all conservation districts could be open to a lawsuit every time they tried to restrict usage.

Of course, water isn't the only natural resource in high demand. More than half of U.S. homes use natural gas as their main source of heat, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas was the top user of natural gas in 2009.

The information administration estimates that there is possibly 100 years worth of natural gas under U.S. territory. While drilling for natural gas continues to be an environmental problem, it is actually a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel.

There is even a modest expansion in the compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle market, with about 110,000 such cars in the United States.

A 2002 study compared a fleet of UPS trucks running on CNG with diesel vehicles. The CNG trucks produced 75 percent lower carbon monoxide emissions, 49 percent lower nitrogen emissions and 95 percent lower particulate matter emissions.

As promising as that sounds, for the gas industry there's a Catch-22: If the price for natural gas gets low enough that a significant portion of the population is ready to convert their vehicles, then the price is probably too low for gas companies to make enough profit. Natural gas prices are three times higher in Europe and Asia compared with the States, and some industry experts point to exporting as a way to bring about stability. Or energy companies could choose to drill for oil instead of gas.

According to the Energy Information Administration, in July 2008 the price for natural gas in the U.S. peaked at $10.79 per million BTUs. The average price in June this year was $4.12. These falling prices are what prompted EOG Resources to try the same natural gas fracking technique in oil fields. Recently they have scooped up long-since abandoned liquid-rich shale formations all over Texas and are using the same method of blasting water and sand into shale to release the oil. And they've had great success with it.

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schultzybeckett topcommenter

Tank cars are owned either by the particular shipper -- that's why one often sees the oil company logo splashed across the side of the car - or by a leasing company such as  Union Tank Car. When the car requires repairs or replacement, it is hauled back to the owning company's maintenance base, or repaired by a contractor at the leasing company's expense. 
Schultzy @


The same people complaining are first ones to cry "big government" when they start restricting water usage, just like the farmers suing The Edwards Aquifer Authority!


What did the fire ( and fire threats still existing!) do to the water demands needed to fight the Montague/Cooke County fires? How much increase and where weree the sources for the firefighters??


Corruption in America is causing its demise and it has roots in Texas exposes a really disturbing case


Poor guys.

Too bad the Trophy Club MUD and every other entity in North Texas with a penny to spend are drilling like crazy in a race to complete wells into this depleted aquifer before the regulatory agencies introduce restrictions.

We're drinking each others milkshake and suing Oklahoma at the same time in one of the greatest eras of piss poor planning mankind has ever seen.