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This article by Emily Guerin first appeared in the August 04, 2014 issue of High Country News.

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Fracking without fresh water

A Texas oil company looks for other ways to supply its water needs.

In 1913, a Toronto lawyer named David Fasken bought 220,000 acres of ranchland in west Texas, sight unseen. He intended to subdivide the land, on the arid Llano Estacado, into farm plots. But he abandoned that idea once he saw how little water there was. Things worked out, however: The family went into the oil business, and now, 101 years later, Fasken Oil and Ranch is one of the oldest privately owned oil companies in the Permian Basin, a fossil fuel-rich field that underlies west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

Eventually, though, the climate caught up with Fasken – as it has with many other oil companies both in the Permian Basin and beyond. Now, faced with drought and increased competition, Fasken is trying to stop using fresh water for fracking, the injection of pressurized liquids to break underground formations, and for drilling. The company is both a model for other operations and an example of how hard it is to cut back.

According to Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable business practices, Permian Basin oil companies use an average of 1.1 million gallons of water to frack each well – not bad when compared to the 4.4 million gallon average in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale. But nearly all Permian Basin wells are in water-stressed areas, and there's more being drilled daily. Ceres predicts water use for fracking here will double by 2020.

For most of the last century, Fasken got its water from the southern end of the Ogallala Aquifer, large areas of which are being drained by agriculture faster than they can be recharged. The ranch's wells were never prolific, says Jimmy Davis, the company's director of oil and gas operations, and drought has made them even worse.

Three years ago was especially bad – only three inches of rain fell near the ranch in 2011, compared to 15 on average. Meteorologists called it the worst one-year drought on record in Texas. Davis and others began to worry about how much of the Ogallala they were pumping from Fasken wells.

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