UT study finds large increase in water used for fracking, but still a small proportion of state’s water use

Klarissa Fitzpatrick

The amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, more than doubled in Texas between 2008 and 2011, according to an updated study released by the University.

The original study, led by research scientist Jean-Philippe Nicot, examined past water usage to make projections for regional water plans. Nicot updated the study to detail the changes in the use of water for mining, which has increased because of fracking. Although the Texas Oil and Gas Association funded the study, the Texas Water Development Board circulated it among regional authorities.

“The main change in the update was that I included the recycling and amount of brackish water,” Nicot said. “I removed that from the total water use of fresh water.”

Fracking is a process by which water and fluids are pumped into the ground at high speeds to extract previously inaccessible natural gas.

Despite the dramatic increase, both Nicot and senior research scientist Bridget Scanlon said that because water used for fracking is about 1 percent of the state’s overall water use, it will not create a water shortage at a statewide level, although Scanlon said problems could arise locally. 

“Anytime you have demand exceeding supply, you have a problem,” Scanlon said. 

According to Nicot, the amount of water used for mining, which includes water used for fracking, is too small to endanger aquifers. 

“In terms of strictly water quantity, and I’m not talking about water contamination, the bottom line is that the water used for fracking is not a threat for aquifers,” Nicot said. 

Fred Beach, a research associate with the Webber Energy Group at UT, said many of the concerns about fracking arise because of “a lack of familiarity with and understanding of the process,” and that all forms of energy production carry risks.

“Similarly, most forms of energy production entail some level of water consumption,” Beach said. “In time of drought and concern over water scarcity these uses raise to a higher level of visibility.”

Nicot said under drought conditions, companies use brackish water unsuitable for municipal use and recycle water when possible. 

“If you treat that water efficiently, you could reuse it,” Nicot said. 

In the meantime, Nicot said companies are pursuing ways to use fracking more efficiently. 

“To stimulate the process, you add chemicals to help the water flow faster,” Nicot said. “If you use brackish water, it doesn’t usually work as well, so they use additives. They’re also developing greener additives that are biodegradeable.”

Because fracking has become a commonly used technique in the oil industry, Beach said revisiting regulations for the process is necessary.

“This means that rules and regulations with regards to safe and environmentally responsible use of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling methods and procedures need to be reviewed and updated,” Beach said.

Nicot’s study is the first released by UT about fracking following a publication last year by former UT professor Charles Groat that found no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking. However, Groat resigned from his position at the University after a review found that he failed to disclose a conflict of interest before publishing the study.

Printed on Thursday, January 17, 2013 as: Fracking use rises to keep pace with oil, gas demand