UT study finds fracking uses same amount of water as conventional oil production

Aimée Santillán

A study led by a UT researcher found that the amount of water used for unconventional gas and oil production, such as hydraulic fracturing, is about the same as is used for conventional production. 

The study, published on Sept. 18 online in the “Environmental Science & Technology Journal,” was led by Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“We’re using more water for hydraulic fracturing because we’re producing more oil using hydraulic fracturing,” Scanlon said. “It is not because hydraulic fracturing is more water-intensive per unit of oil production.” 

Scanlon said she decided to conduct the study to answer existing questions about the vulnerability of unconventional gas and oil production because of water shortages and the use of hydraulic fracturing.

“There is a concern about using water, especially in times of drought,” said Kristine Uhlman, research engineering/scientist associate. “With this research, people can understand that the method for generating energy is not necessarily what’s causing more water use.”

According to Uhlman, hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is a process in which liquids are injected into fractures of rocks to extract natural gas and oil. Conventional oil and gas accumulates in reservoirs and is extracted through the use of conventional, vertical wells. Unconventional oil and gas is trapped in dense rock, typically shale, and cannot be extracted except through the use of unconventional, horizontal wells. Uhlman said the unconventional oil production method has been useful to reach unconventional oil. 

“Unconventional oil and gas production is helping the United Sates be energy independent,” Uhlman said. “We have enough energy to sustain ourselves because of this new unconventional development of unconventional oil and gas.”

Scanlon said the results of this study could be used in future economic and policy studies about environmental impacts of unconventional energy production. She said the research was based on a well-by-well analysis of water use in hydraulic fracturing and used a number of different databases. 

She looked at thousands of wells used for conventional and unconventional oil and gas production and came up with ranges of how much water is used to construct them. They found the same amount of water is used for both methods.

“The difference is not how much water is used, but when it is used,” Uhlman said.

Uhlman said that this study could provide people with a better understanding of the relationship between water and energy.

Research scientist associate Robert Reedy and research scientist Jean-Philippe Nicot, both with the Jackson School of Geosciences, also contributed to the study.