Fracking water map

The volume of water used for fracking energy resources — gray areas — has risen sharply in recent years, raising concerns about its sustainability in regions where water resources are stressed.

The amount of water used per well for hydraulic fracturing surged by 770 percent from 2011 to 2016 in U.S. shale gas and oil production regions.

A new Duke University study finds the volume of brine-laden wastewater that fracked oil and gas wells generated during their first year of production also increased by up to 1440 percent during the same period.

Duke researchers concluded that if the intensification continues, fracking’s water footprint could grow 50-fold in some regions by the year 2030 — raising concerns for arid or semi-arid regions in western states and other areas where groundwater supplies are stressed or limited.

“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,” stated Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

To conduct the study, they collected and analyzed six years of data on water use and natural gas, oil and wastewater production from industry, government and nonprofit sources for more than 12,000 wells. Then they used historical data to model future water use.

"We clearly see a steady annual increase in hydraulic fracturing's water footprint,” Vengosh said.

The models showed that if oil and gas prices rise and production returns to levels seen during fracking's heyday in the earlier part of this decade, water use and wastewater volume would surge.

A well's wastewater is comprised chiefly of brines extracted with the gas and oil from deep underground, blended with some of the water initially injected into the well during hydraulic fracturing. The brines are typically salty and may contain toxic and naturally occurring radioactive elements, making them difficult to treat and dispose of safely. 

The Duke team published the study Aug. 15 in Science Advances.

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