Keep hydrofracking costs in proper perspective

Emily Grubert

Natural gas has a serious image problem because of its water intensity, real or perceived. The practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has received significant media attention for its high-volume water use and slightly mysterious injection of chemicals into the ground. Water quality is compromised by surface impacts such as well blowouts and the discharging of salty, radioactive water to wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania. But using water — and occasionally even contaminating water — is a byproduct of our enormous demand for energy, and we must take responsibility for our demand as well.

Large-volume hydraulic fracturing looks like conspicuous water consumption, with several million gallons of fresh water used in each well. Even though the total volume of water used in a shale gas well is not that large compared with the amount of energy each well produces — about the same amount of water as 50 to 200 people use in a year — it’s jarring to think about that much water being put down a natural gas well when many parts of Texas are experiencing wildfires and people are being asked to let their land die. After all, we’ve never needed to do this before, and we’ve been using natural gas for a long time. (Actually, we have been hydraulically fracturing natural gas wells for decades, but each frack job has historically been smaller because the wells were smaller.) Add blowouts and water contamination in Pennsylvania to the backdrop of Texas water shortages, and natural gas starts to look very ugly. The irony is that natural gas is often less water-intensive and contaminates less water than coal in terms of energy per unit. We don’t seem to have a problem using a dirtier, more water-intensive fuel because, frankly, coal has been dirty and water-intensive for centuries. Large-volume fracking for natural gas is new.

One of the image problems with shale gas — that is, natural gas from the types of rock formations most associated with large-volume fracking — is that we didn’t run out of natural gas before we started fracking.

From the outside, it looks as though the U.S. natural gas industry just started using a lot of water to get natural gas out when it might not have had to, but that image is inaccurate. Conventional natural gas production uses negligible amounts of water per unit energy, true, while shale gas production uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals. But the industry is not moving toward large-volume hydraulic fracturing in shales because it’s easy and cheap but rather because this more difficult geology requires it.

Before, we couldn’t get that natural gas. Now we can, but it requires water. So while we still have large amounts of natural gas that we can get without water for now, that will not be true decades from now. Rather than looking like conspicuous consumption, water used in natural gas extraction will look more like what it is: a necessary input for resource production. As we use more of our “easy” sources of energy, we need to invest more resources into getting the “hard” energy, be they money, people or water. Shale natural gas is a “hard” source of energy, and as we use up the easy natural gas, water might start to look far more valuable as an input to energy extraction than as an input to leaking toilets and inefficient showerheads.

That is not to say the natural gas industry does not need to seriously address some of its big water problems. The lack of information about the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing needs to end, and both currently available and new environmentally-friendly fracking chemicals need to be developed. Water reuse and use of low-quality waters should occur as much as possible to help conserve our valuable water resources. Well construction standards need to improve, and surface accidents and harmful water discharges should be stopped. But large-volume hydraulic fracturing is still fairly new, and we are fortunate to have other energy sources available while we refine the technologies, chemicals and regulations.

Using water for natural gas extraction is not conspicuous water consumption. If we are to continue to use as much energy as we have become used to using and at the prices we feel we want to pay, we need to recognize that getting fuel out of the ground is a difficult industrial process that requires investment and resources. The more we use, the more investment the process will require, and the water we increasingly require to extract natural gas is a conspicuous example of this.

Grubert is an environmental and water resources engineering graduate student.