Longform

Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

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In April, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology released a report for the Texas Water Development Board that estimated that fracking each well used 3 million to 4 million gallons of water. The report determined that total water used for fracking statewide in 2008 was around 8.3 billion gallons. More recently the development board estimated total water use for the entire Barnett Shale in 2010 was 13.5 billion gallons. (Dallas' water customers used 1.42 billion gallons last year.) While EOG is using brackish water at its sand mining operation, water used in fracking is mostly fresh.

Estimating that natural gas production and drilling will decrease in the coming year, the UT report went on to project future water use for frack jobs over the Trinity Aquifer from 2007 to 2025 to be in the neighborhood of 59 billion gallons total, enough to supply a city like Dallas for decades.

"Because it's temporary, fracking will generally decrease over time," says Kevin Kluge at the water development board. "And, actually, it is still a very small part of the statewide use, but in localized areas it can be significant."

The UT report says that at some point fracking operations could compete with water for drinking and farming, but they aren't sounding alarm bells yet.

"On average for the aquifer, this is not a big deal," says J.P. Nicot at the Bureau of Economic Geology in a statement released by the University of Texas. "But for some heavily drilled areas like Denton County, it may be an issue. If that drilling expands elsewhere in the area it may become significant."

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.

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.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.