An oil field south of Odessa, TX.

Sorting Fact from Fiction in the Fracking Water Debate


Above: An oilfield south of Odessa, Texas

The West Texas town of Barnhart has become a hot spot not only for fracking activity but also the debate over how much of a threat the process poses for groundwater supplies. Barnhart is featured in a provocative article that ran in the Guardian (following pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Tribune, and the Observer) and received a tremendous amount of attention.

Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.

Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.

I think the second paragraph is basically indisputable. The only question is how the blame gets apportioned. Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry would like to cast itself as a bit player in the water drama.

David Blackmon, a Houston-based veteran of the oil and gas industry, writes a blog for Forbes that is always an interesting read because Blackmon is a skilled communicator and does an able job representing the industry perspective. This week, he took major issue with the Guardian piece. His main complaint, if I may try to sum it up, is that fracking is being scapegoated for water shortages in Texas and that the real culprits are uncontrollable natural factors like drought and other water users, especially agriculture (he completely ignores climate change). He writes:

This article, which unfortunately has led to a series of follow-up pieces in other media outlets, spends its first 500 words or so placing full blame for chronic water shortages in and near Barnhart, Texas on the very recent boom in the oil and gas industry.  While it finally does get around to at least indirectly admitting the real, far more complex crux of the matter in its final few paragraphs, the writer achieves her obviously intended effect of drumming up alarm about the Texas oil and gas boom.

What is the real crux of the matter?  First, take a look at a map and see where Barnhardt [sic] is actually located:  southwest of San Angelo, east of Fort Stockton, in the middle of the West Texas desert.  This area has always, since human beings began settling it, experienced water shortages and wells periodically running dry.

Not to nitpick but the town’s name is Barnhart, not Barnhardt. And it is indeed located in an area with low rainfall, about 20 inches a year. That is of course what makes water such a precious resource. In areas with abundant rainfall and groundwater resources, fracking’s impact on water supply is limited. Fracking also appears to not be a major factor when looking at its water consumption as a fraction of total use across the state or region. But that belies the precise situation in places like Barnhart or the southwestern portion of the Eagle Ford Shale, areas that suffer from the trifecta of drought (likely enhanced by climate change), historical over-pumping and the new phenomenon of heavy fracking-related water withdrawals from local aquifers.

The folks in Barnhart get this. Keith Stout, a local who services water wells in the area, told me earlier this summer he’d never seen so many wells go dry before. “We’ve never had this problem,” he said. “We’ve never run into this.” He attributed it mostly to drought but the area’s had droughts before. The kicker, he thinks, is the sudden proliferation of hydraulic fracturing in the area. “It’s like having a savings account—if you keep with drawing from it, it’s eventually gonna run out.”

Fifth, the area in and around Barnhardt, Texas is an area that is home to very heavy agricultural water usage that may well not be sustainable in the long run in such an arid part of the state.  That’s not an attack on the ag industry (which my own family has been involved in for more than 100 years), that’s just a fact that water experts all over the state have long expressed concern about.

Barnhart is in Irion County, which is sheep and goat country, not “home to very heavy agricultural water usage.” In 2011, farmers used just 315 acre-feet of groundwater for irrigation, according to the Texas Water Development Board—that’s the equivalent of just 20 or so frack jobs (assuming 5 million gallons per hydraulic fracturing treatment). There are other parts of the state where ag and oil and gas compete for the same water resources, parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, for example. Blackmon is correct that irrigated agriculture’s contribution to groundwater depletion historically far outstrips that of fracking, though I’m not sure that obviates the immediate concerns.

Finally, many of the oil and gas operators in the Barnhardt [sic] area aren’t even taking water from the shallow underground reservoirs discussed in the first 3/4ths of the Guardian piece.  They are instead drilling deeper wells, often into semi-brackish or brackish formations that are unsuitable for drinking or agricultural uses.  Nowhere does the Guardian mention that reality.

This is a valid point and I really wish we had better data on the source of water used in fracking. The best estimates come from a 2011-2012 UT-Austin study. For the sector of the Permian Basin around Midland the authors estimated that roughly 30 percent of the water used in fracking was brackish. About 68 percent was freshwater. They project that brackish water use will grow alongside a ramp-up in production but freshwater use will remain “fairly stable” at 10-15,000 acre-feet per year.

Blackmon is certainly cognizant that the status quo is not going to fly and is likely an invitation for more regulation.

So in order to maintain the public’s confidence and ultimately its license to operate, the industry is obligated to continue to find ways to conserve and recycle water, along with creative ways to source it.

Fortunately, a lot of very smart people at many of the industry’s most innovative companies are involved in doing exactly that.

Trust us—we shall see if that cuts it.