Fracking muddies water

Despite recent rain storms in Austin, Texas is in the throes of a long-term drought. Forecasts for the next decades warn of scarce freshwater and soaring population growth, which is not a good combination.

Last week the House passed legislation that would allocate $2 billion for the Texas Water Development Board’s wish list of local water conservation and management projects. However, there is some debate over who will receive funding and preferential treatment as water resources grow scarcer. The crisis pits farmers against developers and cities against rural towns in a constant scramble for finite amounts of money and water.

One of the major interested parties is the oil and natural gas industry, which uses water for its immensely profitable practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is the process of blasting millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, deep into the earth to fracture the bedrock and release oil or natural gas. According to a 2012 UT study (which was funded by the Texas Oil and Gas Association), water consumption for fracking in Texas more than doubled between 2008 and 2011.

While oil and natural gas production accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s total water use — even watering lawns consumes more — it’s growing, and in rural areas where the drought is hitting hardest in particular. Jean-Phillipe Nicot, a research scientist at UT who led the 2012 study, says that the percentage of water use that goes towards fracking “can be much higher for rural counties, up to 20-30 percent.”

“However,” he says, “it is so not because the industry uses a lot of water in absolute terms but because the baseline is low since rural counties have low population.”

The problem with fracking and groundwater is not one of overall aquifer depletion so much as competition between drilling companies and local landowners. Many farmers and ranchers blame nearby fracking operations for extra strain on their water supply, although that’s difficult to prove. In times of drought, everybody in the area draws more groundwater than usual, and the presence of a fracking rig next door does not necessarily prove causality.

Legal ambiguity is a problem as well. While surface water use is highly regulated, the rules for groundwater have never been explicitly made clear. That’s partly for practical reasons — as Nicot points out, “Water flow doesn’t follow administrative boundaries” — and partly because the rules differ between different Groundwater Conservation Districts, the governmental entities charged with establishing plans to manage local water resources. The existing law, which was written before the rise of fracking, waives the groundwater use permit requirement for “drilling and exploration,” but not for actual oil and gas production. As fracking does not fit neatly into either of those categories, it’s unclear whether GCDs have the authority to require permits for it. Currently, some do and some don’t.

A bill being discussed in the Senate Natural Resources Committee aims to change that. The bill, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would allow all GCDs to require water use permits for fracking if they deem it necessary. The clarification makes sense. 

Hegar’s bill would probably not change actual fracking operations at all, but as Nicot says, “It would be good for scientists and other people tracking water use to have better data.” With Texas’ hydrological future so uncertain, a better understanding of the issue can only be a good thing.

We hope fracking operators, like city-dwellers, suburbanites and rural farmers, take initiative to lessen their water consumption. There are ways to do so. Using brackish water unsuitable for normal use is one, as is recycling the water that is produced after a fracking job is completed. Some companies use alternative fluids, like propane gel or carbon dioxide, although Nicot believes “the convenience of using water will make it the [fracking] fluid of choice for a long time.”

The dearth of regulations for fracking in Texas and easy access to thousands of disposal wells, in which the produced water is buried, discourage those water-conscious methods. According to Nicot’s study, the use of brackish and recycled water together account for 21 percent of the water use in drought-ridden Texas. By comparison, Pennsylvania, which abuts Lake Erie and is rich in water resources, recycles almost 90 percent of the water used by fracking, according to a researcher at Penn State University quoted by The Texas Tribune.

Regulating water consumption for fracking is by no means a cure-all, but it’s clear that more can be done for the water crisis. Moreover, it’s not fair to ask farmers, ranchers and townspeople to take austere conservation measures while certain industries get a free pass. Every drop counts.