One of the major issues associated with hydraulic fracturing, also known as "frac'ing" or "fracking", is the use and permanent contamination of millions of gallons of fresh water for every single gas well that is drilled and frac'ed. During periods of prolonged drought, when citizens are required by municipal governments to restrict their water use, natural gas exploration companies continue to use very large quantities of water that is forever removed from the hydrologic cycle, which means that it is no longer available for human, animal or plant consumption.
To put the water issue into perspective, 97% of all water on earth is too salty for consumption, and the cost of desalination is prohibitive. Of the remaining 3%, 90% is locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers. That means that only 0.3% of all water on earth is available for the entire planet to use for drinking, personal hygiene, growing crops, preparing meals, washing cars, watering lawns, watering animals and other uses that we take for granted except for those living in desert regions where scarcity is already something they understand. Yet, water is vital to human survival, and without an adequate supply we will surely become extinct as a species, just as much as the dinosaurs that once inhabited this planet.
Lately, natural gas and oil companies have begun touting efforts to clean and reuse what they call flowback and produced water, which are the waste products that are recovered by wells before and after they become producing wells. To be sure, the vast majority of that wastewater is injected deep into the earth where industry claims it can never return to contaminate fresh water aquifers or surface water sources such as lakes, rivers, creeks and streams. By their own words they admit to permanently removing from our hydrologic cycle millions of gallons of water from every well they drill.
The above industry claim is technically true - they ARE cleaning and reusing more water than ever before. But, the truth lies in the details. Previously, they were reclaiming none of their wastewater, so any water that is cleaned and reused represents "more water than ever before." So, just how much water is the natural gas industry actually cleaning and reusing? On the same page from an industry "information" website cited above Barnett Progress claims to have "... converted over 700 million gallons of saltwater back into freshwater for reuse."
On its face that sounds like a lot of water, But let's look at the cold, hard facts. Each well in the Barnett Shale of Texas requires an average of about 5 million gallons of freshwater for every frac job, and there are over 20,000 natural gas wells (plus oil wells) in the Barnett Shale region. So, what industry is really saying is that they have successfully treated and reused the equivalent water of about 140 frac jobs out of more than 20,000. That equates to cleaning and reusing 7 gallons of water out of every 1,000 gallons contaminated and permanently removed from our hydrologic cycle. In percentage terms, that equates to cleaning and reusing just 0.007% of all water used in the frac'ing process. The rest is still being injected into the Ellenberger formation 15-18,000 feet below the surface where it "can never return to contaminate the aquifers and water tables" that provide our drinking water.
Several companies have attempted to set up commercial water cleaning operations, but none has been successful for more than perhaps 5% of the water, and the cost is prohibitive. Additionally, the amount of energy required for the process far more than offsets the amount of energy gained by reusing that water for future fracturing jobs. It is a net loss for industry, which is why it continues to pay to truck wastewater to injection wells for permanent disposal. Most attempts to reclaim flowback and produced water have been abandoned because they are not economically feasible.
In recent years, flowback and produced water were disposed of through the water treatment plants of major cities, but that practice has largely been abandoned for two primary reasons - the wastewater from frac'ing comes back so polluted with toxic, carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals (salts, in industry parlance) that it defies the ability of water treatment plants to clean it to an acceptable level for human consumption, and because the water usually comes back contaminated with radioactive materials that no municipal water treatment plant is capable of filtering. In fact, the radioactive water poses a significant threat to the water treatment plant itself, as well as its employees, which is why wastewater treatment plant disposal has ceased to be a viable option for managing flowback and produced water.
Meanwhile, our drought continues, we are still facing water restrictions as citizens, and our elected officials are still allowing gas drilling companies to use and permanently pollute our precious, vital resource that is in scarce quantity. Unfortunately, most elected officials do not have the knowledge and understanding about water issues to ask hard questions, demand honest answers and then act to protect our water supply without which we cannot survive. It is up to citizens to demand accountability from those elected to lead us and make decisions that affect our future, our health and safety, our quality of life and our very survival as a species on this planet.
Don't take our word for it - listen to what industry itself says - "Given the high salt content of produced water, it is impractical for producers to recycle large quantities of the water left over from hydraulic fracturing."
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