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Know the West

Oil and gas water use: the real issues


When I read Tasha Eichenseher’s recent Land Letter article (sub reqd) about fracking's use of water, I was alarmed by the numbers. In Colorado, alone, hydraulic fracturing operations use about 4.5 billion gallons of water per year. That’s expected to increase to more than 6 billion gallons over the next few years.

That’s a lot of water. But, as the story points out, it’s really only a drop in the bucket. Colorado farmers use 5.3 trillion gallons of water per year, while cities and industrial uses account for 397 billion gallons. Snowmaking, according to a report put out by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, slurps up 1.7 billion gallons per year.

The takeaway is that fracking may have plenty wrong with it, but it’s probably not going to suck the state dry.

In fact, the water that the oil and gas industry “produces” is more worrisome than what it uses. Each day, at least 56 million barrels of water are produced onshore in the U.S. as a byproduct of drilling for oil and gas, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in January. That calculates to about 858 billion gallons per year.

This water is almost always contaminated, to some degree, and so it is essentially a waste product that must be disposed of. It’s perhaps the biggest problem energy developers have to deal with, yet it is often overlooked by activists and the media*, even more so in these days of fracking-focused myopia

Produced water -- also known as formation water -- occurs naturally, side-by-side with oil and gas. When the oil and gas are brought to the surface, anywhere from two to 200 times as much water comes along for the ride. Produced water is usually saltier than seawater and it can be naturally tainted by the hydrocarbons you’re drilling for in addition to arsenic, a smorgasbord of heavy metals and even radiation.

Add to that contamination from “drilling muds,” or the lubes that help the drill cut into the earth and that include a variety of chemicals. Plus, oil wells are often “flooded” with carbon dioxide or steam or chemically-enhanced water to keep the pressure and production up as they age. Whatever was in the flood water can get mixed in with produced water. And, finally, some fracking water and its mix of ingredients are tossed into the produced-water-soup. In 2007, Wyoming wells alone produced 97 billion gallons of this stuff, much of it tainted with everything from oil to anti-corrosives to acids and surfactants. Studies have found that natural gas wells produce water that is 10 times more toxic than that produced by oil wells.

For decades, the PW Soup, as I’ll call it, was just dumped into creeks or onto fields. These days most of the soup is injected back into the earth (with some of it recycled for water-flooding), which is considered to be the safest means of disposal. A bit is recycled as fracking water, and if it’s clean enough, it’s used for irrigation. In the West, however, millions of gallons of PW Soup is still disposed of in evaporation pits near the well or huge, centralized wastewater ponds, and some is even dumped into surface waters (particularly in Wyoming).

In theory, the injection wells are deep enough to prevent drinking water contamination, the dumped water is clean enough to do no harm, and the ponds are leak-proof. Of course, when you’re dealing with such massive volumes of stuff, there are always going to be problems: leaky wells or leaky ponds, spills and bad operators who dump bad water. Treatment plants can't always get all the bad stuff out. And even before the drilling booms of the last decade, there had been nearly two dozen documented cases of produced water injection wells contaminating drinking water.

Evaporation ponds beckon water-loving birds, who then can become coated with oil or ingest the toxins in the water. Each year, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million birds -- everything from ducks to grebes to owls -- are killed by oilfield production skim pits, reserve pits, and in oilfield wastewater disposal facilities. Thousands more are sickened each year. Even the big, centralized facilities kill birds.

We'll be seeing a lot more of that PW Soup in the years to come. In fact, the numbers I've used in this piece are mostly from 2007, which would have included the big natural gas boom in the West, but not the new oil frenzy in North Dakota or in the Niobrara formation of Colorado and Wyoming. All of those new wells are producing water, and they won't stop: Oil wells produce more and more water over time (while most coalbed methane wells behave in the opposite manner). 

That fracking and drilling use up our precious water is a problem. That oil and gas development produces billions of gallons more water is a problem too big to keep ignoring.

* There are exceptions: Jeremy Miller did an excellent story on California oil/water issues about a year ago for HCN.

**The New Yorker recently ran an excellent piece on and an Amazonian tribe's efforts to recoup damages from Chevron (formerly Texac0), who has left toxic produced water in pools dotting their territory.

Photo: American coot on an oil-covered evaporation pond at a commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facility. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 migratory birds die each year in oilfield production skim pits and oil-covered evaporation ponds. Credit: Pedro Ramirez, Jr. / USFWS

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2011-2012 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.