Once hailed as a promising, more “climate-friendly” alternative to traditional fossil fuel extraction, fracking for natural gas has in recent years been linked to a variety of environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions (especially methane), water contamination, and even earthquakes. Now, scientists have uncovered yet another hidden danger of this supposedly “clean” energy source.
According to a comprehensive new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey, fracking is using up an astonishing amount of water — as much as 9.6 million gallons per well. An Olympic-sized swimming pool, for comparison, holds about 660,000 gallons.
That’s a lot of water, even for fracking — a process that involves injecting large quantities of sand, water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to release trapped oil and natural gas. While some wells were found to require as little as 2,600 gallons, the study calculated that, on average, gas wells are using a staggering 5.1 million gallons of water each. Not only is that a lot, it’s more than 28 times the amount of water they were using just 15 years ago. And as Climate Central notes, many of those resource-draining operations are located in regions that recently saw severe droughts — Texas, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains – and which can expect to confront even more water shortages as global warming progresses:
Scientists are concerned that the surge in water use for fracking could strain drinking water supplies, particularly in light of increasing drought conditions across much of the country. In some places, said Stanford University professor Rob Jackson, who wasn’t affiliated with the study, fracking can increase the demand for groundwater by up to 30 percent. “In wet regions like the Marcellus (in Pennsylvania), I don’t think water use is that big a deal,” he told Climate Central. “In dry areas it can be a big deal. The strongest effects come through increased pumping of groundwater.”
What’s accounting for the uptick in water use? Newer fracking technology requires it, the study’s authors say. And horizontal drilling to extract natural gas, the use of which has surged in recent years, is particularly water-intensive, especially as it is currently practiced. In the vast majority of the watersheds mapped by the researchers, those using the most water predominantly featured fracking wells that were horizontally drilled:
Of course, this doesn’t mean that other forms of fossil fuel extraction are any better, just that fracking has serious impacts that are often overlooked. After water is used for fracking, for example, the majority of it is injected deep into the ground, taking it out of the water cycle (in other words — wasting it) and, as a side effect, causing earthquakes. And while natural gas, when burned, is much less carbon-intensive than oil or coal, its impact on climate change is incredibly more potent when it leaks, as it is wont to do. Even in a perfect system, a recent study found, its use isn’t likely to significantly lower our greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that fracking may pose serious health risks, particularly among those living closest to oil and gas wells. According to a 2014 review of health-related studies on fracking, the current scientific research puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address,” including contamination of groundwater and drinking water supplies, and the release of a variety of toxic pollutants, including several carcinogens, into the air.
Of the more than 600 chemicals used in fracking, more than 75 percent are known to cause respiratory, gastrointestinal, dermatological, and ocular effects; 40 percent to 50 percent are known to be neuro-, immuno- and/or nephrotoxic; 40 percent are endocrine disruptors; and 25 percent are carcinogenic. Documented health impacts from exposure to these chemicals include headaches, impaired motor function, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver damage, heart attacks, and cancers of the lungs, nose, and throat.
Perhaps most alarming of all, a recent analysis of scientific studies, medical research, and government and industry reports concluded that current regulations are not capable of protecting the public from these health risks.