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Amount of water used for fracking has reached a ‘tipping point’

The actual amount of water being used per well in hydraulic fracturing surged by up to 770 percent between 2011 and 2016 in all major U.S. shale gas and oil production regions, a new Duke University study published in the journal Science Advances on August 15, 2018, finds.

The amount of brine-laden wastewater that fracked oil and gas wells generate in the first year of operation also grew dramatically by up to 1440 percent during the same period, the study shows.

So should the public be worried? According to the researchers, if we continue to aggressively increase our shale production, fracking’s water footprint could grow by up to 50-fold in some regions by 2030, reports Phys.org.

(A) Map showing the global water stress overlaid with shale formations across the world. (B) Water s...

(A) Map showing the global water stress overlaid with shale formations across the world. (B) Water stress and shale regions in the United States examined in this study
Duke University


Look at it this way – that is just 11 years from now. The use of such a large amount of water raises concerns over its sustainability, particularly in semiarid and arid regions in the American southwest and in other areas where groundwater is already limited or stressed.

“Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Vengosh points out that in the past decade, more reliable and verifiable information and data has been collected on fracturing operations. Vengosh notes that there has been a steady increase in fracking’s water footprint, “with 2014 and 2015 being a turning point where water use and the generation of flow back and produced water began to increase at significantly higher rates.”

Annual shale gas (A)  tight oil (C)  and FP water (B and D) productions in shale gas–producing reg...

Annual shale gas (A), tight oil (C), and FP water (B and D) productions in shale gas–producing regions (A and B) and oil-producing regions (C and D). Whiskers on the bar graphs represent 95% bootstrap confidence intervals
Duke University


This rapid increase is due to hydraulic fracturing becoming more efficient, and to recent changes in drilling practices as fossil fuel companies strive to make wells more productive. For example – Inside Climate News notes that well operators have increased the length of the horizontal portion of wells drilled through shale rock to reach the oil and gas deposits.

By increasing the length of the horizontal pipes, there has also been an increase in the amount of water, sand and other materials, including chemicals pumped into the wells. “This is changing the paradigm in terms of what we thought about the water use,” Vengosh said. “It’s a different ball game.”

Some counties in Texas, already arid anyway, are going to begin feeling the impact of fracking soon. Monika Freyman, a water specialist at the green business advocacy group Ceres, said freshwater use for fracking is reaching or exceeding water use for people, agriculture and other industries combined. “I think some regions are starting to reach those tipping points where they really have to make some pretty tough decisions on how they actually allocate these resources,” she said.

Andrew J. Kondash, a Ph.D. student in Vengosh’s lab who was the lead author of the paper said, “This study provides the most accurate baseline yet for assessing the long-term environmental impacts this growth may have, particularly on local water availability and wastewater management.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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