Water is the lifeblood of Colorado’s Weld and Garfield counties, and lately it’s been in short supply. Both of these counties face extremely high stress in terms of water scarcity, and both have seen an intense concentration of the water-intensive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process.
It’s a bad combination, according to a recent report issued by Ceres, a nonprofit devoted to promoting corporate responsibility and sustainability leadership.
The report, released Wednesday, Feb. 4, is titled, “Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Demand by the Numbers,” and it projects that the clash between water shortages and fracking is only going to get worse, given that a significant increase in shale development via fracking in these areas is likely. In the Denver- Julesburg (DJ) Basin alone, which covers parts of Boulder and Weld counties, Ceres predicts a redoubling of fracking activity by 2015.
Fracking is the process used in shale oil and gas plays wherein 2 million to 9 million gallons of water per well is mixed with 500 to 700 toxic chemicals and sand and forced into the formation under great pressure, causing fractures in the shale that allow hydrocarbons to more readily flow to the wellhead.
The organization found that 100 percent of the natural gas and oil wells in Colorado are located in areas facing extreme water stress, 89 percent of which are located in Weld and Garfield counties.
In 2012 alone, according to the report, 3.3 billion gallons of water were used in the state of Colorado for fracking, shy of the state’s earlier projections of 5.2 billion gallons for that purpose. As a matter of comparison, the city of Boulder used 266 million gallons of water for municipal purposes in the same year, according to Michael Bañuelos, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.
But the sheer volume of water used for fracking is not the primary cause for alarm, according to Monika Freyman, author of the report. It’s more about what areas the water is coming from.
THAT 100 PERCENT OF THE NATURAL GAS AND OIL WELLS IN COLORADO ARE LOCATED IN AREAS FACING EXTREME WATER STRESS, 89 PERCENT OF WHICH ARE LOCATED IN WELD AND GARFIELD COUNTIES.
James Famiglietti, a University of California professor of civil and environmental engineering, who was not involved in the writing of the report but who did participate in Ceres’ press conference, agrees.
“The total amount of water used for fracking at a statewide level is very small, but it is localized in a very small area — in a particular town [for example],” he says. “The water used for that purpose [in such an area] is close to 100 percent.”
This water scarcity in areas where companies have chosen to frack poses a risk to the longevity and profitability of fracking wells.
Ceres’ report constitutes the first systematic effort to investigate water usage by natural gas companies. One of the purposes of the report is to identify water sourcing risks to oil and gas companies, thereby generating information previously unavailable to the public. Famiglietti lauds the “deep dives,” or meticulously detailed case studies, conducted by Ceres for the report.
It is, however, by no means a comprehensive study of the risks associated with fracking. Concentrated usage of water in extremely dry regions was just one of three primary concerns Famiglietti points out regarding the report. Famiglietti listed earthquakes and the removal of water from the natural water cycle as additional issues demanding further investigation. Both of these concerns arise from the practice of using injection wells to dispose of wastewater from the fracking process by injecting it into deep formations.
The report also issues recommendations and identifies some of the most progressive current practices in the industry. It specifically mentions, among other companies, Anadarko, the single largest natural gas producer in the DJ Basin in terms of water use, as a “pocket of success.” Anadarko earned the mention for its practice of leasing wastewater from local municipalities. Even so, Anadarko is one of the most at-risk companies in terms of drilling in water-scarce areas, according to Freyman.
“In a general year, cities have more water than they can use,” says Brian Werner, public information officer of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD).
Leasing excess water to oil and gas companies to use for fracking allows municipalities to pad meager budgets. The years 2009, 2010 and 2011, for example, were wet years, according to Werner. In 2012 the Front Range was hit with a drought. Werner expects 2014 to be a particularly wet year.
According to Werner, it is not unheard of to see a town both lease excess water and impose water rationing simultaneously, since water rationing is used to keep water conservation on the public’s minds. “In most years [how much, if any, excess water leased] depends on comfort levels and a number of other factors,” Werner says.
No towns in Colorado currently lease water directly to companies for fracking purposes, according to Werner. Generally, a water leasing company such as A&W Water Service Inc. secures water from municipalities or local farmers, who might own the rights to more water than they need, and then resells the water to a third party for fracking purposes.
The increased demand for water by “deep-pocketed” oil and gas companies is not beneficial to all farmers, though. According to the Ceres report, it has driven up the price of water in Colorado, making it difficult for struggling farmers to stay afloat.
Famiglietti maintains optimistic that the oil and gas industry can rise to address these concerns. “There needs to be more of a sense of corporate responsibility, and I think it can be done,” he says, noting that he feels more pressure needs to be put on the industry.
In the end, the report concludes that “all shale operators and service providers should be deploying a variety of tools and strategies — including substantially improved operational practices related to water sourcing, more robust stakeholder engagement and stronger disclosure — to protect freshwater resources for the future.”