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Conserving water or fracking for oil and gas? We have to choose

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Hand scooping water with a glass

California is in a state of emergency. Reduced rain and snowfall since 2012 in combination with higher temperatures due to climate change have resulted in the worst drought of the last 1000 years for the Golden State. This dramatic situation has led to another round of intense discussions about how California is wasting water.

Crazy developments like golf courses in the desert have come under obvious scrutiny. Farming of water-intensive crops like almonds and pistachios in the desert in central California is another example of egregious water (ab)use.

One other topic that has often been addressed in the context of California’s water woes is the water used by the oil & gas industry in California. California continues to make a significant contribution to American oil production, though conventional oil production has been declining since the mid-1980s. This is why big oil & gas have been planning to start fracking in California’s Monterey shale to search for oil.

Fracking involves drilling a deep well into shale rock formations and injecting millions of litres of fracking fluid – a mix of water, sand and harsh chemicals – at a high enough pressure to fracture the rock and release the oil or gas.

However, this Monterey shale almost perfectly overlaps some of the most productive agricultural land in California’s Central Valley. No wonder that fracking in California has been deeply controversial. More than 20 local communities in California have already adopted a local ban or moratorium within their city limits.

Fracking: stop digging

The strongest argument that keeps coming back goes like this: adding a major water consumer like the fracking industry to an area with a high population density and experiencing a massive drought would be — to put it mildly — not very smart. Especially since more fracking will lead to more oil and gas consumption, which will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions leading to higher temperatures… and more droughts. As the expression goes: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”.

But maybe the example of California and its epic drought may not be relevant elsewhere? Unfortunately, California confirms the rule rather than being the exception. Of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled in the US since 2011, a CERES report found that 55% were in areas experiencing drought. A report by the World Resources Institute found that the top 20 countries with the largest shale gas resources also face water stress where the shale resources are located (China, Algeria, Mexico, South Africa, Libya, Pakistan, Egypt, and India).

In Europe, and especially in southern Europe, droughts are expected to be more frequent and intense due to climate change and increased water use. Even in a notoriously ‘wet’ country like Belgium, where I live, there is a concern about a ‘water black-out’: a high concentration of water consumers has resulted in a serious drop of groundwater levels.

The lessons from California should be clear: first of all, the world needs to urgently reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to avoid runaway climate change. And secondly, the impacts of climate change – melting glaciers, less rainfall, smaller snowpack that result from rising temperatures – will force us to move towards less water-intensive forms of energy production.

Unfortunately, big oil & gas are moving into the exact opposite direction by extracting ever more oil and gas from impermeable rock formations. Let’s briefly list the facts about water consumption by fracking. Each time a shale gas well is fracked, at least 10-million litres of fresh water are mixed with sand and chemicals and injected underground.

In other words, the use of non-drinkable water sources (e.g. brackish water) is still negligible in this industry. In the major shale gas plays in the US, such as the Barnett in Texas or the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, about 90% of the injected water is “consumed”, i.e. that water never returns to the aquifer or reservoir again. Moreover, even though the fracking industry may be relatively more water-efficient than when shale gas extraction first got underway in the early 2000s, it is consuming more and more water in absolute volumes.

There are two reasons for this development: first, more and more wells were being drilled (at least, until crude oil prices last summer started dropping). Secondly, developments in the horizontal drilling technology allow the industry to drill longer laterals into the shale formations, requiring greater water volumes. A last fact to keep in mind is that – after the initial fracking has taken place – these oil and gas wells require maintenance water, which is used for flushing out the salt build-up inside the well-bore. This could add up to 25 to 33.3 million litres — or more than three to four times the water required for the initial fracking.

And these are just the environmental issues with water consumption. I have not even started talking about:

• the impacts of fracking on water quality
• the earth quakes caused by fracking
• the health impacts for locals living next to fracking operations and the oil & gas workers
• the climate impacts of widespread fracking for oil and gas due to fugitive methane emissions

It should be clear that depleting scarce freshwater water resources to produce fossil fuels is deeply problematic, as fracking leads to a vicious circle of less available water and more climate change. The water issue alone would be a good enough reason to ban fracking. When you take the other climate, environmental and health impacts into account, it should be clear that there is an urgent case for a ban on fracking.

Geert De Cock is the director of EU affairs at Food & Water Europe. This guest post does not necessarily represent the views and policies of WWF International. You can read more about WWF’s work to conserve fresh water here.

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Conserving water or fracking for oil and gas? We have to choose: via @climatewwf

In a world with droughts, water scarcity is yet another reason not to choose oil or gas: via @climatewwf

We can’t abuse our water resources to produce fossil fuels! @foodwatereurope talks fracking:

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