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Water shortages have put the US oil and gas industry on a “collision course” with other users because of the large volumes needed for hydraulic fracturing, a group of leading investors has warned.
Almost 40 per cent of the oil and gas wells drilled since 2011 are in areas of “extremely high” water stress, according to Ceres, a network of investors that works on environmental and social issues. It highlights Texas, the heart of the US oil boom, and companies including Chesapeake Energy, EOG Resources, ExxonMobil and Anadarko Petroleum as the heaviest users of water.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is essential for extracting oil and gas from the shale formations that have been responsible for the US boom of the past decade, and it requires large volumes of water: typically 2m gallons or more per well. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped underground at high pressure to open up cracks in the rock so the oil and gas will flow more freely. The water that flows back out again is often poured away into separate disposal wells.
Water shortages can create tensions with local communities and force companies into expensive solutions such as bringing the water to the wells by truck.
Monika Freyman of Ceres said water was a risk that was often overlooked. “People don’t worry about it until it’s gone,” she said. “If you are an investor in a company that is in a water-stressed area, you have to ask questions about how it is managing their water risks.”
Shareholders including the employee pension funds of New York city and state said this week they would file resolutions for the annual meetings of companies including Exxon, Chevron, EOG and Pioneer Natural Resources, calling for more detailed disclosure of their environmental impact, including water use.
Ceres identified Anadarko, Encana, Pioneer and Apache as the companies with the greatest exposure to water risk, meaning the greatest volume of water use in areas with extremely high stress. In those areas, 80 per cent or more of the available water has been committed for other users including homes, farms and businesses.
Exxon said XTO, its shale oil and gas subsidiary, “works with local authorities to ensure there is adequate supply.” It added that coal needed ten times as much water as gas produced through fracking for an equivalent energy content, and corn-based ethanol needing up to 1,000 times as much water.
Anadarko said it was “on the leading edge” of efforts to manage and conserve water, including recycling it wherever possible, and drawing on a range of sources such as municipal effluent and produced water from oil and gas wells. It is also working with environmental groups and others to develop best practices for water use.
Fracking accounts for a relatively small proportion of US water demand: less than 1 per cent even in Texas, according to a University of Texas study, compared to 56 per cent for irrigation. However, in some areas with the greatest oil and gas activity, such as the Eagle Ford shale of south Texas, it can be much more significant.
The potential problem in Texas is exacerbated by the protracted drought that has affected the state and the growth in its population caused by the strength of its economy.
Jean-Philippe Nicot of the University of Texas said the state’s farmers were using less water for irrigation and shifting to crops that could cope with drier conditions. “More and more water is needed for urban centres, and fracking is part of the picture,” he said.
“All the Texas aquifers are heavily taxed right now.”
Wood Mackenzie, the consultancy, argued in a report last year that the industry would need to address the issue to be able to develop shale oil and gas production around the world, with many of the most promising reserves in China, Africa and the Middle East in areas of water scarcity.
Jim Matheson of Oasys Water, a company that develops water treatment technology, predicted an “inexorable but slow” movement towards recycling.
“We’re very early in the evolution, but the future is one in which we’re going to have to figure out how to clean and reuse the same water resources,” he said.