January 2015

Energy issues

Finally: true assessment of Eagle Ford water use

William J. Pike / World Oil


The litany of unfounded criticism of the oil and gas industry by those with little knowledge of it continues unabated. Fracturing comes in for the largest portion of the criticism, and water use is high on the list of targets. That makes it doubly refreshing to receive an unbiased, academic assessment of fracturing and water use issues. I receive such an assessment from the Mosbacher Institute of The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Part of the university’s “The Takeaway” series, the policy brief is authored by David LeClere. A copy can be downloaded at: http://bush.tamu.edu/mosbacher/takeaway/V57%20Takeaway%20Hydraulic%20Fracturing.pdf.

The brief, entitled “Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing: A Texas Size Problem?” doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does it make arguments that it cannot support. Best, of all, it ends with a set of policy recommendations that, in my estimation, would help quiet the din of ignorant, unschooled criticism of fracturing.

After defining hydraulic fracturing, the brief notes a number of salient points. The first is that hydraulic fracturing is water intensive, noting that the typical frac process for a well requires roughly 5 million gallons of water. But, the brief argues, the intensive water use is beneficial to the nation on a number of fronts. It reduces carbon emissions due to the use of more environmentally friendly natural gas. It has led to a resurgence of American manufacturing. It has provided a plentiful and cheap supply of natural gas. And, U.S. prices, at less than $4 Mcf, blow $9–$12 European gas, and $13–$18 Asian gas, out of the water.

Since the report emanates from a respected Texas university, the analysis of the Eagle Ford shale play in South Texas, and its water-related issues, also reads well. Texas is a state in flux. Between 2000 and 2010, it population grew faster than any other state in the country. That growth rate is expected to continue, elevating the population to 46.3 million in 2060 from a little over 25 million. Expanding population will, naturally, drive increasing water demand, from 18 million acre-ft per year to nearly 22 million acre-ft per year in 2060. A 2012 state water plan aimed at developing a strategy to deal with the water crisis, estimated a Texas water shortfall of 2.7 trillion gallons by 2060. It further estimated that filling the water shortfall would require new infrastructure costing an estimated $53 billion. In response to the threats raised by increasing demand, Texas voters approved the $2 billion State Water Implementation Fund in November 2013 to provide means to meet the burgeoning water demand. But, noting the continuing drought in parts of the state, the brief maintains that the plan is inadequate to meet the infrastructure needs required to solve the pending water shortage, especially given the proliferation of water usage in hydraulic fracturing.

Additional research at the Bush Center sheds light specifically on water intensity in fracturing operations within the Eagle Ford, noting that increased fracturing in the play leads to fresh groundwater aquifers that are “overdrawn by roughly 200,000 acre-ft per year, or nearly 2.5 times their recharge rate.” That makes hydraulic fracturing the third largest user of groundwater in the area. That water use level pales compared to the largest users of groundwater in the area. Indeed, the brief states that, absent fracturing operations, the groundwater reserves would still be massively over-tapped. Most of the blame can be laid on farming and, specifically, irrigation, where water use alone exceeds the recharge rate by more than 50%.

The question is, or course, “what’s to be done?” If you listen to the eco-wackos, we should ban hydraulic fracturing altogether. If you listen to the level-headed academic study, a number of policy actions are needed. These include incentives to encourage reduced water use in hydraulic fracturing such as:

  • Oil and gas companies could be offered severance tax reductions to substitute brackish groundwater for fresh groundwater.
  • Companies limiting fresh groundwater use in fracturing also could be recognized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for their environment stewardship with a “Green Star” designation.

Emphasizing that fracturing is not the only, or the primary, culprit in Texas fresh groundwater overuse, the brief also calls for accurate and transparent data reporting on all water consumption, together with policy changes to address inefficient water use practices in all sectors.

I won’t pretend to give a total seal of approval to this brief until I have studied the larger report that it is based on. But it sounds good, with a reservation or two. To address those reservations, I would like to submit a couple of suggested policy actions of my own to help the state solve the fresh groundwater issue:

  • I recommend the construction of a 15-ft high perimeter fence around the entirety of the state, with gates opening only in exit mode. This should allow us to solve our burgeoning population explosion. Being compassionate, it would also give the eco-wackos a giant canvas upon which to spray paint anti-fracturing dribble.
  • Since agriculture is the biggest culprit in this water crisis, I recommend the outlawing of a number of water-intensive crops, that have neither social nor gustatory value. These include grapefruit, cucumbers, radishes, turnips and sickie-sweet melons—gag! Agricultural land freed up from production of these noxious plants should be planted in sausages, a low-water-intensity crop.

If these recommended policy actions don’t work, there is always New Hampshire. wo-box_blue.gif

About the Authors
William J. Pike
World Oil
William J. Pike has 47 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry, and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board.
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