Why surging water consumption could end the shale gale

Emissions barriers used to pose the greatest threat to the shale revolution. Now, water consumption is the main concern

March 11, 2014

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In an arid southern and central Texas, where once-fertile farmland used to dominate the landscape, a different kind of development has taken hold. Today one sees well pad after well pad after well pad, interspersed with the odd ranch. Following three consecutive years of drought, some agricultural operations have closed due to the lack of available freshwater. Despite this there has been a surge of unconventional natural gas drilling, with each well consuming millions of gallons of water. Locals are baffled – where is all this freshwater coming from?

Photograph Mike Robinson

With regard to freshwater consumption, the oil and gas industry is facing questions of its own. Amid a flurry of unconventional resource extraction in North America, over-consumption of dwindling water sources has become among the most controversial issues facing the energy sector. Because water is a lifeblood resource for all, its usage incites emotionally charged debates: environmentalists are in an uproar over decreasing freshwater supplies as well as potential groundwater and surface
water contamination.

Emissions performance is arguably still the primary environmental fighting ground in the oil and gas sector, but that could soon change. In some circles, it already has. Indeed, the limiting factor in future unconventional oil and gas production may not be commodity prices, or even restive environmentalists; some in the energy industry have admitted that if anything brings this unconventional boom to a halt, it will be depleted freshwater supplies.


Industry recognizes the urgency of the matter, and it is responding – albeit slowly. Companies are seeking out non-potable alternatives to freshwater that can stimulate wells while reducing freshwater consumption. Conventional natural gas extraction uses a great deal of water; unconventional methods are even more water-intensive: a single well may use up to 13 million gallons of water over its lifetime. In the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, freshwater (primarily surface sources) figures as the largest constituent in mixtures used to coax natural gas from unconventional wells.

So far, alternatives to freshwater in fracking operations still involve water; in some cases companies use recycled water, saline water, wastewater or seawater. Others use propane-based gel proppants or even acid-mine drainage solutions. But questions remain as to what alternative source is best in any given scenario. Now, more than ever, hydrocarbon producers are forced to wrestle with this complex challenge, which requires them to consider a host of interconnected factors such as the site’s local geology, proximity to water or alternative water sources, infrastructure requirements, and regional regulation.

“It should be understood that the public will not continue to grant social license for ‘business as usual’ with respect to negative effects that subsurface energy activities may have or be perceived to have.”

Brian Rahm, research associate with the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University, says some fluids are ideal in certain scenarios, “depending on the depth and extent of the laterals, and distance of the frack.” Another issue is supply. If producers were to replace freshwater operations with a more hazardous alternative (highly saline or recycled water, say), environmental risk would increase markedly.

These limitations have left industry with a serious conundrum. But an increasing number of companies are developing more water-efficient methods of fracking as a result. Sanjel Corp. has engineered a suite of fracturing fluid technologies designed to perform in a wide variety of applications using non-potable water sources, including produced water, recycled water and saline water. Kim Day, manager of corporate applications and implementation, says Sanjel’s patented fracturing fluid systems are designed to be “robust and flexible, so that whatever makes sense for that day, that well, that geology and that customer” can be applied at a moment’s notice.

An overhead view of well pads tapping into the Eagle Ford shale formation in South Texas
Photograph Amy Youngs

Suretech Completions Canada Ltd., a Calgary-based subsiduary of Sanjel, is one of many service firms offering technologies that can cut back on water consumption. Its SUREstack Retrievable Multistage Fracturing System reduces the use of water post-fracking by giving operators the ability to retrieve the balls and seats without need to mill or drill them out. GasFrac Energy Services Inc., another Calgary-based service company, has been selling its patented propane gel fracking method for years. While upfront costs for the technology are steep, GasFrac uses no water in its operations, and claims to offer longer-term cost reduction. “LPG (liquid propane gas) used in the closed GasFrac system is primarily propane, a naturally occurring hydrocarbon that is non-damaging to the formation,” says Eric Tudor, a spokesperson for the company.

Though GasFrac offers an alternative to excessive water use in fracking, propane is in certain situations less effective as a stimulus than water, which is essentially “non-compressible.” If water consumption is to be cut back in any meaningful way, some industry observers say, it will require more stringent regulation.

Bob Sandford, Epcor chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations “Water for Life” decade, says the technologies required to decrease water usage in unconventional drilling already exist. “What prevents these methods from being employed [in some cases] is the absence of the regulatory insistence and enforcement consistency that would ensure that operators institute such measures,” he says. That notion is shared by others. Emma Lui, national water campaigner for Council of Canadians, says provincial legislation is inadequate considering that widespread horizontal fracking in unconventional plays is relatively new to Canada. “Industry shouldn’t be left to self-regulate or adhere to voluntary standards,” Lui told Alberta Oil in an email.

Currently, water regulation in Canada is arguably chaotic, and this may be the primary reason that some experts point to regulatory shortcomings. Governance of energy and water in North America spans the federal, state, provincial, territorial, regional and municipal levels – and those levels are often intersecting. Take, for example, that the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, which underlies parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, falls under federal, provincial, territorial and, in places, even municipal regulatory jurisdiction.

If attempting to overhaul Canada’s water regulatory regime, one could look to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) as a model. The SRCB is an interstate regulatory authority that covers the states of Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, though New York declared a moratorium on fracking in February of 2013. Unlike regulatory bodies in Canada and elsewhere in the U.S., the SRCB has the exceptional ability to permit or prohibit water withdrawals within its portion of the Marcellus and requires very little wrangling to do so. Each state, as well as the federal government, elects commissioners who regularly meet and vote over individual permits for water withdrawals. Their decision is the final one.

“Industry shouldn’t be left to self-regulate or adhere to voluntary standards.”

For the most part, however, the fervor over freshwater consumption or contamination will largely be voiced by local residents. This is especially true in U.S. plays like the Eagle Ford, where there is a much higher population density than anywhere in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. However, Sandford says, sentiment against over-consumption is quickly rising in all regions, not simply in those with scarce freshwater supply. “It should be understood that the public will not continue to grant social license for ‘business as usual’ with respect to negative effects that subsurface energy activities may have or be perceived to have,” he says.

Perhaps where the least tolerance will be allowed is in potential contamination of freshwater resources – surface or groundwater – supplying high-population regions. There is also the question of how to properly treat flowback water, and how to dispose of leftover sludge. Many existing wastewater treatment facilities are ill-equipped to return produced or flowback water back to a non-hazardous form. More water than ever is being reused in some regions as a result; however, there are still massive volumes of water that need to be treated and safely disposed of.

Further complicating the treatment of produced flowback water is the sheer number of chemicals present in the fracturing fluid mix, as well as engineers’ knowledge of those chemicals. Several reactions occur subsurface throughout the fracking process, altering the chemical properties of the mix. The transformation that the fluid undergoes depends largely upon the local geology including mineral composition, and wellbore construction material.


The ever-increasing limits of freshwater supplies, the risk of contamination of freshwater resources and the lack of adequate technologies to manage produced water from these wells are thus pressing issues for this industry. There is little information on efforts to reduce freshwater contamination by fracking, and even if freshwater use is reduced, produced and flowback water disposal still needs to be addressed.

To date, the challenge of treating flowback water has received little attention. But one thing is certain: water-related challenges faced by U.S. fracking operations may serve as warnings to Canadian producers. Water shortages seen in the U.S. could become a Canadian story in decades to come. The regulatory and technological developments to addressing the acute environmental challenge of depleting water supplies are lagging behind the pace of North America’s fast-expanding shale revolution. If this doesn’t change, the boom could soon give out.

Alexia Lane is the author of On Fracking, an exploration of fracking and the risks of freshwater over-consumption in the modern age

Follow @AlbertaOilMag

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One Response to “Why surging water consumption could end the shale gale”

  1. cyberclark says:

    Much of the concern and conversation comes from the fracking in and around the water table! Damage and leaching into the water table is constantly denied by the operators.

    This could be over come easily with a sampling pump put into the aquifer at 100 meters downstream and 500 and 1000 meters down stream. This is a relatively inexpensive check that has been avoided by the industry leading the world to believe the very worst is happening!

    Such sampling holes into the water table could be remotely monitored and set to check for various and more frequent noxious stuff that definitely gets into the water. Why won’t industry and Government step up to the plate and do what is right?