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Observer Analysis Finds Fracking Water Use Underestimated in Eagle Ford Shale

by Published on
An oil field south of Odessa, TX.
An oil field South of Odessa, TX.

If you want to know how much crude oil was produced in Texas in March, the numbers are available to the barrel (50,087,778). If you need a monthly rig count for the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas or the number of drilling permits issued in 2012 (4,143), the Texas Railroad Commission can provide that information. But if you want to know how much water was used to frack wells for any time period anywhere in Texas’ shale plays… Well, get out your calculator.

So we decided to find out. Aided by Observer interns Priscila Mosqueda and Marissa Barnett, I discovered that the industry and state authorities have likely significantly underestimated the amount of water used by frackers in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Some people had suspected that fracking was draining water supplies. In June the little West Texas town of Barnhart, with a population of about 200, ran out of water. The city’s well simply stopped pumping enough water to keep up with demand. The town had to turn to another well, drilled in the 1900s, which yielded water deemed unfit for consumption unless boiled. What was the cause? Some said the drought. Others blamed fracking in the area.

Among the latter camp is Keith Stout, a local who owns a company that services water wells. Stout says private water wells started drying up several years ago, and it’s only gotten worse. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said.

The main culprit, Stout says, is the drought, but the fracking activity is making the situation critical.

Texas authorities haven’t done much to study the impact of fracking on water supplies. Some of the few official estimates they have done are suspiciously optimistic.

Last year, the Texas Railroad Commission announced the findings of a 24-member Eagle Ford Task Force. Relying on informal and unpublished industry estimates, the task force pegged the annual water consumption from fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale at peak production at 30,000 acre-feet, a pittance next to the estimated 622,000 acre-feet in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. (One acre-foot roughly equates to the amount of water used by three typical Texas households in a year.) Moreover, the task force reported that frackers used only 6 percent of the water in the region, dwarfed by farmers and cities. Those estimates had a major flaw: The Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer stretches from Laredo into Louisiana—it extends far beyond the Eagle Ford Shale. Probably the best work to date comes from University of Texas researchers, who used industry data to predict that fracking water usage would peak at 35,000 acre-feet.

We wanted a more up-to-date estimate. We decided to focus on a three-county area—Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala counties—in the southwestern portion of the shale between San Antonio and Laredo, for two reasons. One, there’s good data and science there. Two, it’s a hot spot. There’s low rainfall, lots of agricultural pumping in the Wintergarden area and increasingly heavy oil and gas production. There’s no doubt that fracking is a tiny percentage of total water use in the state. What we need to focus on are the parts of Texas that have the most to lose from over-pumping.

First, we looked at pumping data from the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District. We found that frackers reported using 9,500 acre-feet in 2012. We got an even higher figure when we crunched the data from more than 450 filings with FracFocus.org, a website where the state requires frackers to disclose the chemicals and water they use. According to the site, frackers in Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala counties used nearly 15,000 acre-feet of water in 2012.  That’s a remarkably high amount for one year in just three counties. It’s half of what the Texas Railroad Commission has said the entire 24-county Eagle Ford Shale will use a decade from now when oil and gas production is expected to peak there.

Ron Green, a research scientist with the nonprofit Southwest Research Institute, had previously estimated that fracking in the arid southern Eagle Ford Shale could amount to as much as one-third of the annual aquifer recharge.

After reviewing the Observer‘s analysis, he said fracking’s contribution may be equivalent to 100 percent of the annual recharge to that segment of the aquifer. In other words, for every drop of water that replenishes that part of the aquifer, frackers are pulling another drop out.

Extrapolating across the entire Eagle Ford Shale, Green said that fracking’s water consumption could far outstrip previous estimates. “It could be upward of 40,000 or 45,000 acre-feet [per year] without much exaggeration,” he said. Compare that to the “official” estimates that the shale, at its peak sometime in the next decade, will use only 30,000 or so.

Getting the numbers right is critical. It’s remarkable that journalists and independent scientists are having to do the work that the state government should be doing. It’s almost as if they don’t want to know.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • SoberMoney

    Fracking safety is a myth paid for by the fossil fuel industry. We all know who controls the major media outlets. At least the Observer tries to point out the lies and the PR written for ignorant and gullible Americans.

  • Trinity

    Can you tell me what the highest volume (in gallons ) was used for any one frack well in the Eagle Ford? We have one in Michigan that used 21 million gallons. I am trying to ascertain if we are leading the nation in largest amount of water used for one frack well. Thank you.

    • Marc

      Actually, you have wells in Michigan that are using more than 30 million gallons per frac job! So far, Michigan is the global leader in wasting fresh water for hydraulic fracturing.

  • Texleg

    Your “scientific” estimate on water use in the three counties is interesting. Groundwater Conservation Districts, such as Wintergarden, keep track of water withdrawls (water pumped out) by acre feet. FracFocus requires operators to report water used that is injected (water pumped in) for each fracturing treatment. It appears you have double counted the water use. Remember, there is water outside those three counties and is often trucked or piped in from outside the district. Please show your work.

    • Forrest Wilder

      Yes, the FracFocus data is flawed or incomplete for the reason you cited (it only captures the water used in the frack job, not the source of the water) as well as others (typos, for example). But I’m not clear on what you mean when you say we “double counted.” The FracFocus numbers may well be an overestimate of the water pumped out of those three counties for use in fracking jobs but I don’t see how they would be “double” given that the estimate we derived from the groundwater district data was 9,500 acre-feet. I’m happy to share our spreadsheet with you if you’d like to take a closer look.

  • TruckerMark

    Isn’t it interesting that the same oil & gas industry promoter that claimed that Austin homeowners put more water on their lawns than the fracking industry uses, David Blackmon, has been in Colorado recently throwing money around like it’s chump change in opposition to four different ballot issues in local Colorado cities to enact fracking moratoriums? It turns out that Mr. Blackmon, in-addition to writing for some local Texas oil & gas promoter, also writes on-behalf of the Independent Oil & Gas Association and is also the local Denver-based local Director of a division of the $4 billion dollar international energy consulting firm, CTI Consulting? Boy can he tell lies and make major omissions too!!! We have already busted him on several of his major lies in our own local election, but they are outspending local opposition by 20-1 at least, if not 50-1 or more!

    Perhaps somebody should have told Mr. Blackmon that since we vote by mail here, that the lion’s share of the ballots were already mailed in before he threw lots of dough at that supposedly “special” glossy 12-page “business report” aka wildly inaccurate fracking promotional literature that we didn’t get in the mail until 5 days before election day, as he could have saved his employer a bunch of money???

    Did you hear the latest theory behind the rush to as quickly as possible frack all of America with a complete lack of care for our future? It turns out that the an immense percentage of the value of the US oil & gas industry is based on yet-to-be-exploited reserves, and with the need to as rapidly as possible move away from burning fossil fuels to avert a potential climate disaster, these fracking companies are moving as fast as they can, and telling the biggest lies in history, to drill for and retrieve these resources before renewable energy content laws render their yet-to-be-exploited reserves worthless!

    In Colorado it is already law that we come up with 20% of our 2020 energy demand from renewable sources, with significant pressure from the climate change camp to raise that percentage to 50% or even 80% by 2030 I spent a couple of hours today in-conversation with some Arctic climate scientists that were extremely worried about record methane emissions from melting permafrost and straight out of shallow-depth seabeds there. It seems that this past summer and fall to this point has been the warmest ever on record in the Arctic. In Fairbanks, in central Alaska, they had 36 days of over 80 degrees this past summer, including 5 days of over 90 degrees, when an average summer only has had 11 such days. There was also record Arctic sea ice melt as well as record Greenland icecap melt, as well as immense amounts of record permafrost melt too.

    Here in the past month (October, 2013) Fairbanks has broken all-time high temperature records by the date 14 days of October’s 31 days, and so far in November every day has been 10-15 degrees above normal too. In October there was only one day below normal and several days where the day’s high was more than 30 degrees above average. The fear is that record methane releases in the Arctic present the danger of rapid climate change across the entire planet, which could take about 6 months for the released methane to work its way completely through our atmosphere. So, figure about April or May on a surge of record high temperatures caused by the record warmth this past summer and fall in the Arctic.

    Which won’t help any of the Greater Southwestern US or most of Mexico at all when it comes to water supply or food supply sustainability! Here are a couple of links that contain the science that we were discussing at length today:

    The theory behind “abrupt climate change”:

    http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2013/10/abrupt-climate-change.html

    This piece about record Arctic methane releases during the last week of October is two days old:

    http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2013/11/locating-sources-of-worlds-highest-methane-levels.html

    If these people are even close to right fracking’s days are indeed numbered even if the end result involves an inability to heat or cool large areas of our country until renewable energy standards hit the 75-100% range, which would also result in a rapid devaluation of oil & gas company values based on yet-to-be-exploited reserves too.

    Here is an interesting piece about the potential rapid write-down of oil & gas industry assets due to the need to rapidly move toward renewable energy:

    http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-unburnable-carbon-2013-wasted-capital-stranded-assets.pdf

    No wonder there is such a huge rush to pull oil & gas assets out of the ground by any means possible!!!

  • MRawrawk

    After replicating this research, I found 739 records for Texas counties Dimmitt, La Salle and Zavala water use in 2012 from FracFocus. The total use came out to 13,445 Acft. It’s still higher than the GCD’s numbers, but lower than your result. Because FracFocus isn’t completely reliable data, I’m trying to locate an alternative data hub. Found SkyTruth but they get most of their data from FracFocus. State Agencies are unable to require fracking companies to submit their water use data without legislative rules.