New Study: Fracking Water Stress

Jun 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Environmental Management, Sustainability

EHS Journal - Fountain by Gavin Spencer

According to a new report released by Ceres, nearly half of more than 25,000 oil and gas wells evaluated in the United States are in water basins with high and extremely high water stress. Future growth of the unconventional resources sector in the U.S. depends on better water management planning and accelerated water recycling.

“These findings highlight emerging tensions in many U.S. regions between growing hydraulic fracturing activity and localized water supply needs,” said Ceres president Mindy Lubber, in announcing the report at Ceres’ annual conference in San Francisco.


Concerns for Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania

The report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water, shows that a significant portion of this activity is happening in water stressed regions of the United States, most prominently Texas and Colorado, which are both in the midst of prolonged drought conditions. In Colorado, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water stress regions. In Texas, which accounts for nearly half of the total wells analyzed, 51 percent of the wells were in high or extremely high water stress regions. In some Texas counties, water use for hydraulic fracturing accounted for more than 20 percent of the region’s total water use. In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the wells were in medium to high water stress water basins, and 2 percent were in high water stress basins.

“Given projected sharp increases in shale oil and gas production in the coming years, competition over water should be a growing concern to energy companies, policymakers, and investors,” the report concluded, noting a projected doubling of oil and gas fracturing production in the coming years. “Shale energy development cannot grow without water, but in order to do so the industry’s water needs and impacts need to be better understood, measured, and managed.”


Improving Water Use Practices

As the report outlines, the industry has made progress in boosting the use of recycled water and other alternative water sources for fracturing wells. Operators are starting to use non-freshwater alternatives such as wastewater, saline water, seawater, and acid-mine drainage. “Overall water recycling and the use of non-freshwater sources must increase considerably to have a significant impact,” the report says.


Report Recommendations

The report includes key recommendations for companies and regulators, among those:

  • Implementing mandatory standards for companies to report data on water use, discharges, and disposal.
  • Requiring companies to set quantifiable water use targets, including recycling and non-freshwater use targets.
  • Ensuring that sufficient water management planning is conducted by companies and local regulators.
  • Maintaining a robust stakeholder engagement process for water issues.


About the Report

The report, released in May 2013, is based on well drilling and water use data from and water stress indicator maps developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI). The research was based on FracFocus data collected on 25,450 wells in operation from January 2011 through September 2012.

This report is part of a larger, more comprehensive study Ceres is undertaking to analyze water risks across the entire hydraulic fracturing lifecycle — from water sourcing to final treatment and disposal of wastewater — across different regional basins in North America. The research is aimed primarily at investors who have financial stakes in operators and support services in these regions. was launched in 2011 as a voluntary national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. The database provides the location and date that each oil and gas well was developed and the chemical additives and total volume of water injected down each well.

WRI’s water stress indicator maps are part of a recently launched Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, which provides a comprehensive, high-resolution picture of water-related risks worldwide. The baseline water stress indicator maps show the level of competition for water in different U.S. regions by measuring total annual water withdrawals against the percentage of water that is available.  Extremely high water stress means over 80 percent of available water is already being allocated for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses.

By linking the two datasets together through matching latitude and longitude coordinates, the report provides valuable insights about the extent and distribution of well production activity in regions with water competition challenges.


About Ceres

Ceres is an advocate for sustainability leadership. Ceres mobilizes a powerful coalition of investors, companies, and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy. Ceres also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a network of 100 institutional investors with collective assets totaling more than US$ 11 trillion.

Photograph: Fountain by Gavin Spencer, Lancing, West Sussex, United Kingdom.

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