By Courtney Loper, Energy In Depth
Earlier this week, a gaggle of activists published a report under their umbrella group – the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). The report, titled “Gone for Good,” strikes an expectedly dramatic tone about the water usage of oil and gas operations in the West.
But, before we start debunking the claims in the report, let’s take a quick look at the authors.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils is made up of smaller, state-focused anti-oil and gas activist groups – Dakota Resource Council, Dakota Rural Action, Northern Plains Resource Council, Oregon Rural Action, Powder River Basin Resource Council, and Western Colorado Congress.
Lest you think we are unfairly labeling them as activists, note that these groups have called hydraulic fracturing and the oil and gas industry “dangerous,” “uncontrollable,” “hazardous,” “a major threat,” “exempted from regulation,” and accused the industry of “fouling the air, drying up home wells, polluting groundwater, and poisoning livestock.” Heck, the Western Colorado Congress even proudly touted their association with the Bucket Brigade and Gasland’s Josh Fox.
Doesn’t sound like a group of unbiased researchers, does it?
Because no one should be forced to read though yet another repackaging of talking points and debunked claims, Energy in Depth took one for the team and read the report. Here are a few of the worst claims:
Claim: “[I]t seems clear that water use for fracking is reaching a crisis point in the region. There is mounting evidence that the current level of water use for oil and gas production simply cannot be sustained…”
Fact: The press release accompanying the WORC report claims the total annual water use for hydraulic fracturing across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota is “at least seven billion gallons.”
Now, let’s assume that estimate is accurate (given the associations mentioned above, we know “facts” are not something these folks typically worry about, but just for argument’s sake, let’s pretend otherwise). According to the US Geological Survey, those four states use roughly 33,250,000 acre-feet of water in a year. That’s approximately 10.8 trillion gallons.
So, 7 billion gallons represents roughly 0.06% of the combined water use of those four states. That’s even lower than the 0.08% finding in a report last year by three Colorado state agencies who specifically estimated hydraulic fracturing water use, and much lower than the Department of Energy (DOE) and Ground Water Protection Council’s (GWPC) estimated range of “less than 0.1% to 0.8% of total water use,” depending on the basin. Of course, there’s nothing scary about those percentages, so the WORC report simply throws around the term “billions of gallons” again and again without any context to frighten as many people as possible.
It turns out that DOE and GWPC officials anticipated this kind of alarmism, and included the following passage in the water use section of their report on hydraulic fracturing:
“While these volumes may seem very large, they are small by comparison to some other uses of water, such as agriculture, electric power generation, and municipalities, and generally represent a small percentage of the total water resource use in each shale gas area.”
In Colorado, for instance, while hydraulic fracturing accounts for about one-tenth of 1% of water use, the recreation industry uses almost 6%, municipal and industrial users account for more than 7%, and the agriculture sector consumes more than 85%.
Claim: “With few exceptions, the rest of the water used for fracking is gone for good from the hydrological cycle.”
Fact: Here’s another major flaw – the report completely ignores the water that’s added to the hydrological cycle as a result of oil and gas development.
For example, Gov. John Hickenlooper recently pointed out that when natural gas is burned, it produces “far more than the water used in fracking,” because “when you burn natural gas, it gives off CO2 and H2O that goes into the air and into the hydrologic cycle.”
Based on estimates from DOE and the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, every billion cubic feet of natural gas burned produces more than 11 million gallons of water:
US Department of Energy, January 2012 - “All hydrocarbon fu¬els release significant quantities of water vapor as a combustion byproduct. … When one molecule of methane is burned, it produces two molecules of water vapor. When moles are converted to pound/mole, we find that every pound of methane fuel combusted produces 2.25 lb. of water vapor, which is about 12% of the total exhaust by weight.”
Colorado Oil & Gas Association, June 2012 - “Since a volume measurement of H2O is easier to interpret than pounds of water, we want to convert our 2.25 lb yield of H2O into gallons. … Our calculations show the combustion of 1 pound of methane results in the production 3.71 gallons of water and that 1 BCF of methane produces over 11 million gallons of water.”
Claim: “Congress exempted fracking, other than fracking with diesel, from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2004. Federal agencies have not yet identified a means of regulatory leverage adequate to address looming conflicts over water quantity.”
Fact: First of all, you simply cannot get oil or natural gas out of shale rock without complying with overlapping state and federal environmental laws, and the many regulations that are issued under those state and federal laws. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year:
“As with conventional oil and gas development, requirements from eight federal environmental and public health laws apply to unconventional oil and gas development.”
The DOE and GWPC leave no uncertainty about this, saying, “The development and production of oil and gas in the U.S., including shale gas, are regulated under a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation.”
As for SDWA specifically, in 2005 (not 2004) Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which did not “exempt” hydraulic fracturing from any law, period. It simply affirmed the regulatory system already in place: states regulate hydraulic fracturing. This has been the established structure since the first hydraulic fracturing job was completed in southwest Kansas in 1947. SDWA, meanwhile, became law in 1974, and it has never covered hydraulic fracturing, because it was never designed to cover hydraulic fracturing. How can you be “exempt” from something that never applied to you in the first place?
Activists, it’s time to put this talking point to rest.
Same recycled activist groups, same recycled talking points. The only “crisis” here is a crisis of credibility for environmental activists, who will do or say anything to manipulate the fear of drought in the West into fear of the oil and gas industry. This so-called report is just another chapter in that irresponsible fear campaign, masquerading as “science” and research.
Loper is field director for the mountain states for Energy In Depth.