One of the many “hot button” issues surrounding the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the amount of water used in the process of fracking a well.  This issue has been particularly controversial when the fracking occurs in areas encountering drought conditions.  My colleague, Thomas Goslin, recently wrote about the subject in an article titled “Nationwide ‘Water Crunch’ Poses Threat To Fracking.”  While concerns about water use will undoubtedly persist, a study just released by The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology concludes that “producing oil through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses similar amounts of water on average as producing oil by conventional means.”  The study was published in the Environmental Science & Technology Journal and is titled “Comparison of Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Oil and Gas Production versus Conventional Oil.”

As explained in the University of Texas’ press release, the study compared water use in hydraulic fracturing operations in the Eagle Ford (Texas) and Bakken (Montana and North Dakota) formations, with previous estimates of water use in conventional operations throughout the country. These shale plays account for about two-thirds of the oil produced by fracking in the United States.  While water use for fracking varied significantly between the Eagle Ford and Bakken plays, mostly because of differences in geology, “in both formations the proportion of water used per unit of energy gained was comparable to conventional oil production.”  Thus, while the United States is using more water–it is because hydraulic fracturing has expanded oil production, not because hydraulic fracturing itself is using more water per unit of oil production.

Recognizing “the current debate about the amount of water used to produce energy,” Bridget Scanlon, one of the senior scientists who undertook the analysis noted that the “results of this study can be used in future economic and policy studies about environmental impacts of unconventional energy production.”  She further stated that “[t]he public perception . . . is that hydraulic fracturing uses extremely large quantities of mostly fresh water” and that this study “underscores the importance of quantifying water use.”  

This study’s conclusion, that increases in water use for oil production are due to increased energy production and not a higher intensity of water use will certainly not end the fracking “debate,” but it does put the frequently discussed water consumption issue into perspective.