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Water is the New Black Gold

Photo credit: Robert Ingelhart/Getty Images

By Sharon Franklin.

A recent New York Times series concerning fracking and water by Hiroko Tabuchi and Blacki Migliozziexplores the relationship between hydrofracking and our disappearing water sources.  

Giant new oil and gas wells that require astonishing volumes of water to fracture bedrock are threatening America’s fragile aquifers. An aquifer is a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. Groundwater enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil. It can move through the aquifer and resurface through springs and wells. In Texas, the birthplace of the fracking revolution, increasingly complex oil wells are sweeping across the state into the surrounding United States. These new wells can consume millions of gallons of water that often come from our dwindling aquifers. To satisfy the “fracking thirst,” energy giants are now drilling not just for oil, but for the water they need to operate.

The New York Times series documents this surging water usage by examining an industry database in which energy companies report the chemicals they pump into the ground while fracking. The database includes details on their water usage, revealing the dramatic growth. Critics of fracking say it is an irony that so much water is being diverted to produce fossil fuels, given that the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, further straining freshwater resources. 

Nationwide, fracking has used up nearly 1.5 trillion gallons of water since 2011. This is equivalent to the amount of tap water used by the entire state of Texas in a year. Today, the insatiable search for oil and gas has become the latest threat to the country’s endangered aquifers, a critical national resource for industrial farming and cities. These mega-fracking projects, called “monster fracks,” have become the industry norm. They account for almost two out of every three fracking wells in Texas. Peter Knappett, professor of hydrogeology at Texas A&M University, refers to fracking companies as “newcomers, a new sector that burst onto the scene and is heavily reliant on the aquifers [that] could be pumping for several decades from aquifers that are already over-exploited and already experiencing long-term declines.”

There is public resistance emerging in New Mexico where a coalition of tribes and environmental groups are suing the state. They’re claiming that fracking companies are using up precious water resources and the state has failed to protect the interests of residents. Also, in Colorado, residents are fighting a proposed fracking project because they fear it would risk contaminating a reservoir their community depends upon. Oil companies require no permits to drill their own groundwater wells and there is no consistent requirement that groundwater used for fracking be reported or monitored. As droughts have gripped Texas and other Sunbelt states, many communities have instituted water restrictions for residents even as fracking has been allowed to continue unabated.

What is the oil industry saying about fracking?  Holly Hopkins, an Executive at the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry was “focused on meeting the growing demand for affordable, reliable energy while minimizing impacts on the environment” and its’ members were “continuing to develop innovative methods to reuse and recycle” water used for fracking. British Petroleum said it was “executing several pilot projects to recycle water” that would “minimize freshwater usage,” whileChevron added “that water was vital to its operations and that it aimed to use water efficiently and responsibly,” also saying that it used brackish or recycled water for fracking. Southwestern and Ovintiv did not respond to requests for comment.  

Because there is big money to be made in oil, and for those with access to water, it can be easy money to give away water rights. For example, Bruce Frasier, an onion grower who sells groundwater to a local fracking company for 50 cents a barrel, said that “If you’ve got the water to sell, you’re making a fortune”.   A small percentage of oil companies is making strides in reusing that fracking wastewater to drill for more oil and gas. Mr. Martin, a rancher and farmer who heads the Wintergarten Water District, doesn’t fault energy companies because he irrigates his cantaloupe fields using groundwater. However, he still contemplates a future of ever-dwindling aquifers, and somberly notes that “If the water goes away, the whole community will [go] away too.”

Toxic Tuesdays

Hydrofracking: Radiation Risk

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Hydrofracking: Radiation Risks

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a process for accessing gas and oil deep within the earth. The process involves creating a well and drilling about one mile deep into the ground. Once it has been dug deep enough, cement is poured into the opening around a steel pipe to create a barrier between the fracking process and underground water sources. Then the drilling continues deeper into the earth, this time at an angle until it becomes horizontal. The length of that horizontal drilling can last up to three miles in length. Next, more cement is poured around the hole to create a barrier with the surrounding environment. Then a perforating gun is sent down the well into the horizontal section. There, it punctures the bedrock, creating multiple cracks that are 30 inches deep.

These cracks, or fissures, are created so that water, sand, and chemicals can be sent down into those newly made cracks. The water mixture causes further fracturing, like giant tree branches, in the bedrock that goes deep into the ground and releases oil and gas. The resource-intensive process can use up to 9.7 million gallons of water per one well. In addition, the wastewater that comes back from this process is radioactive and full of toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health.

All that water then becomes unusable because of the naturally occurring radioactivity brought up from the ground with the waste. The health effects of the radioactive wastewater on humans are vast. The radioactivity is caused by the “naturally-occurring radionuclides” that are made up of uranium, thorium, and radium. These elements are hazardous to human health and can cause adverse health effects and even death with exposure to high levels, or concentrations, of the chemicals in the fracking water. Other than the radioactive chemicals found in fracking water, the industry also mixes over 1000 other chemicals into the water. These can include, but are not limited to, lead, PFAS (forever chemicals), ammonia, hormone disrupting chemicals, diesel, benzene and diesel. Exposure to these chemicals in the fracking wastewater can cause cancers, such as leukemiahematologic (blood)urinary, and thyroid cancers. Exposure can also cause developmental health issues in children and neuromotor skill impairment. Heart disease is another area of concern, with communities close to hydrofracking sites having significantly higher heart attack rates.

Currently, most of the wastewater is stored in underground wells, but this storage solution can seep into the water supply in a variety of ways, as discussed in a peer-reviewed article published by Environmental Health Perspectives. Radioactive fracking wastewater can end up in so many different areas, from drinking water to consumer items. The reason why this is allowed has to do with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005 and the creation of the Halliburton Loophole. The loophole prevented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating the fracking industry or its wastewater. That means radioactive wastewater can end up in drinking water, but the agency cannot confront the company responsible.

Despite claims from fracking companies that the fracking-contaminated water is appropriately handled, radioactive wastewater finds its way back into the environment. The fracking wastewater can even be found in store-bought items. For example, the product AquaSalina is a de-icer that is sold in stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s and contains the harmful chemicals. This product is available for public purchase and was even used by the state of Ohio. In 2019 alone, the Ohio Department of Transportation used a million gallons of the product. Outcry and protests from the impacted communities and environmental groups lasted for years until the state of Ohio agreed to ban the use of the product on their roads.

How can you take action on this issue? Contact your Congressional representatives today to let them know you support the reintroduction of H.R.2133, the FRESHER Act of 2021. The proposed bill would give the EPA the power to control wastewater discharge from oil and gas operations – meaning fracking wastewater would have regulation at the federal level.

Learn about more toxics

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Photo Credit: Trudy E. Bell


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One of many bends down the 290 mile length of Ohi:yo' (Allegheny) River
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