Fracking: Water Concerns

13/11/2014 15:42 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The following is an adapted extract from a research piece entitled 'The future of UK shale gas' and is the first of a series on environmental concerns related to fracking.

The water intensive nature of hydraulic fracturing remains one of the environmental-related factoids perpetuated by the Green lobby. The Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis estimates drilling a well uses between 2 to 6 million gallons of water. Initially this may seem like a gargantuan amount of water, but once put into context the amount of water required is minimal. A government document entitled 'Fracking UK shale: water' by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) estimates that the amount of water required to frack a well for a decade is equivalent to the volume needed to water a golf course for a month or to run a 10,000 MW coal-fired power plant for just 12 hours. The DECC's Strategic Environment Assessment predicted that if shale was to become commercially extracted, annual water use could increase by up to 9 million cubic metres. This increase would represent an 18.5% increase of water supplied to the energy, water and waste sectors per annum, but the volume of water allocated to fracking would be "substantially less" than 1% of total non-domestic water usage per year.

Regulators and the water industry appear to be embracing the potential "dash for gas". In January 2014, the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) released a report that berated "alarmist" claims that UK shale would threaten the security of water supplies. The UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) and Water UK both share the view that water supply risks can be mitigated through competent regulation.

A report by the World Resources Institute concluded "34% of its [the UK's] shale resources face high water stress." However, the UK regulatory system aims to minimise the effect of fracking on the domestic water supply. Operators will require a water abstraction license if "water [is taken] directly from surface water or groundwater for operational purposes" and "this exceeds 20 cubic metres a day". Under the UK regulatory system, operators require consent from the Environment Agency (EA) for groundwater investigation and a licence is only granted if the EA believes the volume of water applied for will not harm local communities or the environment. Conversely, the US federal Energy Policy Act 2005 contained the "Halliburton Loophole". This removed fracking and natural gas extraction from the jurisdiction of certain requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act, such as the underground injection control or regulation of frac fluids. Thus this is another example of the wildly differing regulatory regimes operating in the two countries (which will be addressed in this series of articles), and why US examples cannot necessarily be applied straightforwardly in the UK. The abstraction licenses awarded by the EA are not the only method the UK could use to regulate shale water use. A document from the DECC makes further provisions to regulate fracking water use:

"Water companies must produce, and then update every 5 years, a long-term plan with contingency reserves in case of a drought. Water companies will assess the amount of water available before providing it to operators."

As there is limited data on UK shale, a US comparison puts fracking water use into perspective. In Pennsylvania, shale gas extraction uses 1.9 million gallons of water a day (mgd). Industry uses 770 mgd; mining uses 96 mgd and livestock 62 mgd. Research published by Carnegie Mellon University indicates that the total volume of water used to frack the 1916 wells in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale formation was the equivalent to the drinking water used by Pittsburgh (with a population of 306,000, similar to Wigan or Coventry) alone. Furthermore, America's EPA estimates that the total volume of water used by shale operators in 2011 (between 70bn and 140bn gallons) is 5% of the volume of water used by the US population to maintain their lawns. In terms of other energy sources, steam turbines in coal plants use over 25 times the amount of water that shale wells do. In Texas alone it has been estimated that the state would have consumed an extra 32 billion gallons of water if all its natural-gas plants were solely burning coal.

Water concerns have led to fracking being calumniated. Factoids related to shale gas extraction's supposed "monopolising" of the water supply must be dispelled to lay concerns to rest. US examples can rarely be applied directly to fracking in the UK due to the polarised regulatory regimes and should not be allowed to vilify the practice in the UK. If opponents are really concerned about water usage and are not disseminating falsehoods for their own political gain, their efforts would be far more effective targeting more water-intensive industries.