In North Dakota’s Bakken region, fracking has generated nearly 10,000 wells for unconventional oil and gas production—and along with them, almost 4,000 reported wastewater spills resulting from the activity.
It’s indisputable that fracking requires enormous volumes of water and produces equally enormous volumes of wastewater. So, water itself now poses a risk to the American fracking industry, and that cannot be ignored.
With the increased demand for fresh water from both the agricultural industry and now the oil and gas industry, will water supplies be the undoing of the fracking industry? Or, can the industry find ways to make fracking more water efficient and in doing so, make it more sustainable?
From our perspective there is a clear opportunity for the fracking process to be more water efficient. Fundamentally, the easiest way to use less water is to focus on re-use. With the right treatment processes/chemicals - which can be done on or near site - the volume of “new” fresh water required for each well could be reduced significantly.
With the sheer number of wells and the volume of water required for each well, even relatively small percentage improvements in water efficiency can mean a significant reduction in overall water usage for the fracking industry. A reduction definitely seems necessary, with a Duke University study stating that from 2011 to 2016 the amount of water used to frack oil and gas wells rose 770%.
Around 150,000 wells have been drilled or permitted in more than 20 states since 2005, according to industry and state data, and 2m to 9m gallons of water is required to frack a single well. For argument’s sake, let’s say the average well requires 5m gallons of water. This means that the overall water usage for wells could be up at 750 billion gallons of water. Let’s now assume that with some process improvements we could achieve a 20% reduction in water usage. That would result in an overall savings of over 150 billion gallons of water. Even if we were only able to achieve a 10% reduction, this would still mean a savings of nearly 75 billion gallons.
Many may think that even a 10% reduction in water usage is overly ambitious, but based on our experience with other waste streams in the oil and gas industry, this type of result is highly achievable as long as there is the motivation to do so.