Fracking is the environmental solution that environmentalists love to hate. Fracking has proved perplexing for the environmental movement, dividing its factions into disparate camps: those who oppose fracking because it still extracts a fossil fuel that emits CO2, and those who support fracking as the fuel that will enable a graceful path from coal and oil toward a future based on renewables. It’s a source of noise pollution, light pollution, air pollution, land pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gases. The equipment makes a racket for neighbors. The lights from flares and equipment can be seen from space. Gases escape from production sites, igniting debates about whether they are significant contributors to climate change. The drilling pads, usually a few acres apiece, mar the landscape. Flying into DFW gives a bird’s-eye view of a patchwork of thousands of production sites that have been cleared of vegetation and tamped down. They look like misplaced, rectangular, white puzzle pieces scattered over the land as far as the eye can see.
Fracking also propagates the fossil-fueled era longer than many environmentalists want, which means more decades of CO2 emissions and worsening climate risks. Add in the risks associated with fugitive emissions of methane, a very active greenhouse gas, and things look even bleaker to the environmental community.
Yet natural gas is the prince of fossil fuels: It is cleaner than petroleum and coal. It can cut our pollution of SOx (sulphur oxides), NOx (nitrogen oxides), particulate matter, and heavy metals like mercury dramatically, in some cases by more than 99 percent. And despite the methane leaks and other concerns, cheap natural gas liberated by fracking has enabled a rapid decarbonization, as we displace coal with natural gas in the power sector. In fact, while carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase globally, U.S. emissions have dropped to 1994 levels.
An issue that makes fracking even thornier is water use. This quote about a boomtown captures some of it: “Many’s the time you’d see a man come in, order a quart of whiskey poured in a bowl and go to washing his face and hands. Damned good reason for that: Water had to be hauled miles and it cost like blue blazing hell ...it took many hundreds of gallons of water to drill a well... but water cost three dollars a barrel.” This anecdote reveals the value of water to oil and gas operations and how boomtowns have an inconvenient knack for being located in regions enduring severe drought, forcing operators to bring in water from far-flung locations. The funny thing is, that quote is from a 1939 story in Cosmopolitan about Burkbunett, a boomtown in Texas. That article inspired the movie Boom Town starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The water tensions for the oil and gas industry in Texas are hardly new.
Water is a flashpoint for many people who do not want to compete with energy companies to get the water and are worried about contamination of their aquifers or surface spills that will get into the waterways. There is good reason for this concern, as a typical fracturing job requires anywhere from 2-9 million gallons of water per well. That means a lot of truck traffic moving water to the well pad and risk of shortages or higher prices for other users. Those same wells also return millions of gallons of wastewater laced with the chemicals that are injected to enhance productivity, along with the naturally occurring chemicals in the shale that come to the surface. The salt levels of so-called “produced water” make the ocean look like freshwater by comparison.
While these concerns and risks are very real—after all, the word “hydraulic” in “hydraulic fracturing” means “water”—there are some surprising ironies. It turns out that we use water to produce every form of energy. While the steady stream of water trucks is an obvious indicator of the water needs for fracking, biofuels are about 100 times more water-intensive. And, despite the additional water used with hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas from shale formations, UT research in engineering and geosciences revealed that natural gas use saves water over its entire life cycle because natural gas combined cycle power plants have less than half the water intensity of coal plants. Shale gas is leaner from a water perspective than people anticipate and is a drop in the bucket compared to irrigated agriculture. That might not be much comfort in some shale plays, as the localized water impacts from shale gas extraction can still be significant, and the water savings at the power plant might occur elsewhere several months later.
For many people, the issue of water quality is worse than quantity. While some of the accusations by fracking opponents are overblown, it is important for oil and gas producers not to sidestep the fact that there are real risks to water quality from oil and gas operations. It is also important for stakeholders to realize that those risks are not specific to fracking, rather they are present wherever oil and gas, or really any energy operations, are prevalent. Recent high-profile events such as deepwater blowouts, coal chemical spills, coal ash spills, and mountaintop removal mining that buries hundreds of miles of waterways serve as reminders that fracking is hardly the only form of energy production that puts water at risk. Even the renewables are not squeaky-clean: UT research a few years ago evaluated how biofuels production can lead to nitrogen-laden runoff that gets into the waterways. Fracking’s scorecard on water quality is still being determined, but by comparison, it isn’t really that bad.