Ecocentric

Fracking for Natural Gas May Help Us Save Water

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a water-intensive process—as critics love to point out. But by enabling the switch from thirsty coal to more efficient natural gas, fracking could be good for water scarcity

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Jason Janik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fracking a gas well requires up to 6 million gallons of water—but that's not as bad as it sounds

When it comes to hydrofracking, it’s the fracturing that gets a lot of the attention, but in fact it’s the hydro part of that is particularly troublesome. Even if fears over the contamination of groundwater supplies with toxic frac water can be overblown, environmentalists argue that hydrofracking simply uses too much water—especially in arid drilling regions like Texas. Between 4 and 6 million gallons (15 to 23 million liters) of water is used every time a gas or oil well is fracked, and with the energy boom booming, that can add up to a lot of water, as Hillary Hylton noted in a piece for TIME earlier this year.

But a new study argues that fracking for natural gas actually seems to save water in the aggregate, by making it easier for utilities to switch from thirsty coal plants to more efficient natural gas power. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin collected water use data from all 423 of the state’s power plants. They estimate that the water saved by switching from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times greater than the amount of water used in fracking to extract the shale gas in the first place. In 2011, the researchers estimate that Texas would have consumed an extra 32 billion gallons of water if all its natural gas-fired power plants were instead burning coal. “The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing, by boosting natural gas production and moving the state from water-intensive coal technologies, makes our electric power system more drought resilient,” said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the University of Texas’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the lead author on the study.


(MORE: Local Bans Set Up a Showdown Over Fracking in Colorado)

The study is a reminder that for all the focus on the water consumed in fracking or by farms through irrigation, one of the single biggest users of water is the power industry itself. Thermoelectric generation—that would be technologies like coal, natural gas and nuclear, which use heat to generate steam—account for approximately 40% of the freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. In arid regions and during droughts—like the historic 2012 drought, which at its height covered up to 65% of the U.S.—water can become so scare that power plants may need to reduce operations or shut down altogether. With population increasing—especially in fecund and popular Texas—and demand rising, the so-called “water-energy nexus” will be a growing challenge for decades to come.

But the huge amount of water used by power plants tends not to get the kind of attention that fracking does—probably because fracking, especially on a large scale, is relatively new, while coal and natural gas plants have been around for decades. (The Texas State Water Board estimates that hydrofracking accounts for less than 1% of total water use, while providing more than 10% of the state’s total economic output.) Fracking for oil and gas is also much more distributed than a centralized power plant is; if you live in Texas, chances are much better that you live closer to a fracked well than you do a power plant. Power plants—and the mining of the coal used in many of them—are out of sight, and thus they’re out of mind.

Still, the fact remains that Texas was a water-stressed state well before the first gas well was fracked, and the concentration of fracking in certain areas of the state can strain local water supplies. Water use for fracking in Texas is also growing rapidly, from 36,000 acre-feet in 2008 to 81,500 acre-feet in 2011. That’s why oil and gas drillers will need to start recycling frac water, or find substitutes that don’t need water at all, like the liquid petroleum gel made by the Canadian company GasFrac. Water is scarce now in Texas and its likely to be even scarcer in a hotter and more crowded future. Every industry—including oil and gas—will need to figure out a way to use our most precious resource more efficiently.

(MORE: As Obama Visits Upstate New York, the Fracking Debate Takes Center Stage)

19 comments
DoryHippauf
DoryHippauf

Power plants are based on a very old technology - steam engineering.  Super heat water through the use of a fossil fuel or radioactive fuel, turn it into steam and then use it to spin the turbines to produce electricity.   The efficiency of steam engineering has improved, but it is still an old technology.

If the author of this article took the time to tour a power plant, they would have noticed, the power plant is most likely located near a water source - like a river, and there may be large cooling towers on the property.   Water is withdrawn from the source, used to generate electricity, pumped to cooling towers where the steam reverts back to a liquid state and then is returned to the original water source.

Water used in the process of UNCONVENTIONAL hydraulic fracturing is mixed with chemicals to reduce friction as it's pushed through the lateral legs.   It is estimated 3-6 MILLION gallons of water is used per "frack" - not per well pad as a well pad may multiple wells.   In addition to the chemicals added, the water also becomes contaminated with materials existing in and around the shale layers, which include arsenic, lead, manganese, strontium, radium, barium etc.  Additionally the frackwater becomes highly salty and is estimated to contain 5-6 time more salt than sea water.

Frackwater cannot be returned to the environment so it's is effectively removed from the water cycle.  Yes, some fossil fuel corporations are "recycling" and "reusing" frackwater, however, the frackwater needs to go through a process to remove some of the materials it has accumulated, and MORE FRESH WATER needs to be added.   This brings up the problem of what to do with the waste.  And there is still the problem of permanent removal of fresh water from the water cycle.

The author also fails to mention contamination of natural water sources which people and towns use everyday.  These are not isolated, small sources of water, and it's not just one or two people being impacted.  The entire water source, with it's millions and billions of gallons of water becomes unusable.

The fossil fuel industry and it's cheerleaders often point out "fracking" doesn't cause water contamination.   They can say this because they limit the definition of "fracking" to the moment where the shale is shattered.   The process before and after the "frack" is largely ignored in their talking points.

This is not a new problem, faulty well casings, degradation over time of well casings, migration through natural faults etc. is a well known fact.  The fossil fuel industry knows it exists and has no solution.

The supporters of the fossil fuel industry limit themselves to fuel sources used in the old steam engineering technology, and do us all a disservice by NOT exploring out of the box.  

Solar and wind do not use ANY water to produce electricity.  How much MORE water can be saved if we expand on these sources?

A number of middle east countries are now constructing solar and wind facilities.   Why?  So their own people will have access to electricity, and stretch out their fossil fuel sources longer to sell to countries who are short sighted and cling to old technologies.
 

The USA use to be a leader in technology and innovation, but short sighted focus on immediate corporate profit has blinded us to the future.   We lack the political will and foresight to climb out of the fossil fuel box.





GeneralE
GeneralE

It is true all we have to correct the energy utilizations especially petroleum. 

Crude oil should be used for certain industries because it is limited. 

Electricity as a general power for publics can be used to charge the battery for electric cars. For cooking food publics can use Induction Cooktop powered by electricity as the substitute for kerosene jet & LPG gas to power the other usages. 

Using the unlimited renewable energy US can achieve the energy freedom status for the best country on earth. 

Supported by:
US Energy Security, World Energy, UN, OPEC, Boeing, NASA, Siemens, LG, GE, Bosch, Electrolux

jman
jman

The study was done by researchers from the Frac Capital of the world ... Texas. No bias there of course

RobertFinne
RobertFinne

Waste water from hydraulic fracturing has to be sequestered into Class II UIC wells. This water is GONE from the system hopefully never to return due to its toxicity. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio, Texas  and Colorado have ALL experienced increased seismic activity directly related to hydraulic fracturing waste injections.

There is currently a class action in Oklahoma where the combination of waste water from hydraulic fracturing and fly ash from coal plants has polluted an entire towns water system. Numerous case have been filed and settled out of court and the secret proceedings locked away by confidentiality agreements.

There is no future benefit from seeking energy sources below ground. Those days are over, all the cheap easy to extract energy is gone and all that is left is expensive and environmentally risky sources. If we continue to pursue it then the next generation will really pay the price.

Polymath129
Polymath129

It should be noted that natural gas derived generation of electricity does not usually use steam turbines. Rather than centralized giant coal burning plants, gas generators tend to be small and disbursed. In most of these plants the gas is burned in a single jet engine turbine and blasted directly into a gaseous drive turbine which transmits torque to an electric generator. Then, the still hot exhaust gas is in some cases used to heat water for use in a co-generation plant, something like a small paper mill sitting adjacent to the electric generation facility. These plants are small enough that the hot water can recirculate and be re-heated. The co-facility pays a fee to the electric company for secondary use of their waste heat. This is practical in that jet turbine exhaust has a high enough temperature for energy to be extracted twice. In that coal, nuclear, and oil fired plants create steam for the first extraction, and the condensed steam is less than 212F following first extraction, there is not enough heat left for a second extraction. Due to their size, most of these plants do not reuse the condensed steam but rather dump it into a river or reservoir along which the plant is located. This alters the ecosystem greatly, killing fish and other wildlife, leaving biomass to rot and pollute the river for miles downstream.

RobertForce
RobertForce

@jaykimball... NY used a closed loop system and recycled the water. Gov. Cuomo shut down gas drilling to appease the left wing lloonies who will help him with his 2016 Presidential campaign.

jaykimball
jaykimball

When you say coal plants "use water"  They simply heat it to steam, then condense it, and put it back where it came from - a pond or river.  It didn't disappear and become un-reusable.  Not sure how you are defining "Use"?  Fracking uses water and contaminates it.  Would you include links to the studies you are writing about.  Let's get in to the details.  On the surface, it sounds like a typical academic study from a state that benefits from business as usual with regard to fossil fuels

Noesis
Noesis

@jman You would have rather had somebody that gets paid by global Warming grants to have penned the article?

Noesis
Noesis

@RobertFinne Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and Colorado have ALL experienced increased seismic activity directly related to hydraulic fracturing waste injections.

-----

I doubt if the maginuted 1,2 and an occasional 3 is that big of a concern.

saltdawg
saltdawg

left wing loonies?  Cool, let's waste our fresh water for the next 20 years and then fight other countries for theirs once we have no fresh water left.  Right wing folks need to wake up, this isn't political.  Fresh water is really common eh?  Can we use fracking water ever again.  No.  You are killing our nation in the long run for short term gains.  You are less American than those 'loonies' you wish to critisize.

Noesis
Noesis

@jaykimball Not exactly true. Water is first distilled/RO treated to get rid of the contaminants (to prevent scale)then it is added to the system where it is heated, goes to a turbine then to a condenser and is cooled to be reused again. It's actually a closed system, sort of like your car's coolant system.

It's the water that is supplied to the condenser that comes from lakes streams or ponds, picks up a few degrees of heat and then is returned slighty warmer to where it came from.

GeneralE
GeneralE

@jaykimball

All human activities are to make better good generation's quality also making better the good systems. 

pauldeger
pauldeger

I was wondering the same thing. Fracking puts water out of commission for any other use. Is this the same case for water used in coal-fired energy production?

jaykimball
jaykimball

By the way, I am not advocating coal over natural gas.  They both have their toxic aspects.  If the study came from West Virginia, it would be arguing that coal industry is nicer to water than fracking.  Just depends on where the university is getting their money from.

jaykimball
jaykimball

@Noesis @jman Regardless of what a study is researching and reporting on, we want to see research done, detached from special interests.  This Time article should link to the study, and report on who funded it.

saltdawg
saltdawg

So if we frack California it wont be of any concern?  One of the most seismically active areas on earth?  no concern, right? 

saltdawg
saltdawg

Write in proper English before you post a comment.  Also, all human activities are not 'to make better good generations quality'... whatever that means, is completely false.  Read history much?