Water is scarce already, especially in arid places like South Texas and North Dakota. But hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, slurps up a lot of water.
CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas—Water has always been a concern for 65-year-old Joe Parker, who manages a 19,000-acre cattle ranch here in South Texas. “Water is scarce in our area,” he says, and a scorching yearlong drought has made it even scarcer.
What has Mr. Parker especially concerned are the drilling rigs that now dot the flat, brushy landscape. Each oil well in the area, using the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, requires about six million gallons of water to break open rocks far below the surface and release oil and natural gas. Mr. Parker says he worries about whether the underground water can support both ranching and energy exploration.
Darrell Brownlow, another cattle rancher, says that if the economically depressed region has to choose between the two, the choice should be simple.
Mr. Brownlow, who has a Ph.D. in geochemistry, says it takes 407 million gallons to irrigate 640 acres and grow about $200,000 worth of corn on the arid land. The same amount of water, he says, could be used to frack enough wells to generate $2.5 billion worth of oil. “No water, no frack, no wealth,” says Mr. Brownlow, who has leased his cattle ranch for oil exploration.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has revived prospects for oil-and-gas production in the U.S. and provided a welcome jolt to many local economies. Less than three years after its discovery, the Eagle Ford oil field here already accounts for 6% of South Texas’s economic output and supports 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a study by the University of Texas at San Antonio earlier this year, which was funded by an industry-backed group.
But fracking also is forcing communities to grapple with how to balance the economic benefits with potential costs. To date, criticism of fracking has focused mainly on concerns that the chemicals energy companies are mixing with the water could contaminate underground aquifers. Oil industry officials regard that issue as manageable. The biggest challenge to future development, they say, is simply getting access to sufficient water.
The issue isn’t just rearing its head in parched regions like South Texas. North Dakota, another big source of oil from fracked wells, is concerned about the industry depleting aquifers and has threatened to sue the federal government to free up water held by an Army Corps of Engineers dam. Oklahoma, too, is struggling to cope with the industry’s thirst.
(click here to continue reading Focus on Fracking: Oil’s Growing Thirst for Water for Hydraulic Fracturing – WSJ.com.)
So, either short term profits or long term ability to live in an area. Hmm, I know what Darrell Brownlow has chosen, but what about the rest of the people in his community? Are they willing to destroy the local water supply so that he can get rich?
In addition to tapping underground aquifers, oil companies are interested in water from Texas rivers. They have acquired—or are currently seeking to acquire—from local irrigation authorities the rights to nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year. That is enough to supply nearly a quarter-million people for a year.
One source has been the Rio Grande. Cities along the river, which are among the fastest growing in the state, draw from it to supply water to residents.
“This is a major concern for us,” says Juan Hinojosa, a Democratic state senator from McAllen who represents the area. “The oil companies have a lot more money than we do to buy water rights.”
The intense drought over the summer exacerbated the water concerns of cities. More than 964 public water systems, covering 14.7 million Texans, have imposed voluntary or mandatory restrictions, according to the state.
This summer, the city of Grand Prairie, near Fort Worth, stopped selling water to oil companies as part of its drought-contingency measures, which also included lawn-watering restrictions.
Oil companies have long been exempt from most Texas state water rules and permitting requirements, but the state has begun to take a fresh look at the industry’s ability to drill water wells wherever they have acquired rights to extract oil and gas.