How fracking is exacerbating drought across America

Because it trades water for oil and methane, fracking is burning our future. There’s no other way to put it.

We’ve written about this before, how the fracking process is intensely water-hungry. The amount of water used to frack a well can vary, and wells can be fracked multiple times.

But I’ve seen ratios like the ones below in multiple places. Via Daily Kos and Dan Bacher, in an article that discusses industry estimates versus the estimates of critics, here’s information about Kern County (CA) fracking water-use:

Kern County oil industry uses vast quantities of water

One thing is for certain – oil companies use big quantities in their current oil drilling operations in Kern County, although the amount specifically used in fracking operations is hard to pinpoint. Much of this water this comes through the State Water Project’s California Aqueduct and the Central Valley Water Project’s Delta Mendota Canal, spurring increasing conflicts between local farmers and oil companies over available water.

“What’s resoundingly clear, however, is that it takes more water than ever just to sustain Kern County’s ebbing oil production,” according to Jeremy Miller’s 2011 investigative piece, “The Colonization of Kern County,” in Orion Magazine (…)

“At the height of California oil production in 1985, oil companies in Kern County pumped 1.1 billion barrels of water underground to extract 256 million barrels of oil—a ratio of roughly four and a half barrels of water for every barrel of oil,” according to Miller. “In 2008, Kern producers injected nearly 1.3 billion barrels of water to extract 162 million barrels of oil—a ratio of nearly eight barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.”

These are serious ratios. Keep them in mind when reading the following. It comes from Dr. David Suzuki and Ecowatch (my emphasis and paragraphing; h/t commenter Drew4u in a reply to this post):

Trading Water for Fuel is Fracking Crazy

It would be difficult to live without oil and gas. But it would be impossible to live without water. Yet, in our mad rush to extract and sell every drop of gas and oil as quickly as possible, we’re trading precious water for fossil fuels. …

One of the most disturbing findings [of a study by Ceres, “a U.S.-based nonprofit advocating for sustainability leadership”] is that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is using enormous amounts of water in areas that can scarcely afford it.

The report notes that close to half the oil and gas wells recently fracked in the U.S. “are in regions with high or extremely high water stress,” and more than 55 percent are in areas experiencing drought. In Colorado and California, almost all wells—97 and 96 percent, respectively—are in regions with high or extremely high water stress, meaning more than 80 percent of available surface and groundwater has already been allocated for municipalities, industry and agriculture.

Here’s what that looks like in a handy map (source here):

Fracking in areas of high water stress (full map with legend here)

Fracking in areas of high water stress (full map with legend here)

Click to enlarge, or click the link to view the full map. Orange and red are areas of “high water stress” and “extremely high water stress.”

Suzuki goes on to note something we noted earlier as well:

Drought and fracking have already caused some small communities in Texas to run out of water altogether, and parts of California are headed for the same fate.

California is already in a multi-year megadrought of millenial proportions (possibly the worst in 500 years, according to Suzuki). Especially hard hit are the major cities and the Central Valley agricultural region:

The city of Los Angeles has received only 3.6 inches of rain this year [2013]—far below its average of 14.91 inches, USA Today reported. And San Francisco is experiencing its driest year since record keeping began in 1849. As of November, the city had only received 3.95 inches of rain since the year began. …

The portion of the state currently hit hardest by drought includes the Central Valley, a prime agricultural area, and “a lack of rain and snow this winter could bring catastrophic losses to California agriculture, as water allotments are slashed by state agencies,” USA Todayreported.

Yet we frack away, trading water for oil. Or rather, our Betters frack away, trading climate and environment for dollars — your climate and your environment for their dollars.

We’re literally turning our drinking water into oil and methane, and burning our future with it.

When does this end? It ends on its own, in a rolling catastrophe, or it ends when we retake the political process — via both ballot measures and street measures — from the hands of the Oil and Tar barons, and from their bought enablers in government. I don’t see another alternative.

UPDATE: Speaking of “their bought enablers in government,” I’m reminded via email that California Governor Jerry “I care about the climate” Brown has a big history of taking Big Oil money and signing fracking permits, again while much of California is in a multi-year drought. From the anti-fracking info page (my emphasis):

The oil and gas industry gives millions of dollars to California’s elected officials to ensure their interests are served in Sacramento. Governor Brown is one of these recipients, having accepted at least $2,014,570.22 [$2 million] from fossil fuel interests since his race for Attorney General in 2006.

As the public awakens to the dangers of fracking in California, the fossil fuel industry is spending as much money as it takes to protect their dirty interests. Billions of barrels of untapped oil are sitting in the Monterey Shale and Big Oil is pushing to make sure it all stays on the table.

State campaign finance laws prohibit any company or individual from contributing more than $27,200 per candidate, per election — but many of these companies have found loopholes that let them flood the system with their petro-dollars, making sure our elected leaders, and Governor Brown in particular, protect their interests.

The fossil fuel corporations and associated industries at the top of the dirty money pile include: Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, Southern California Edison, Valero Energy, Tesoro Corp, Plains Exploration & Production, Venoco, Conoco Phillips, and Aera Energy (owned jointly by Shell and ExxonMobil).

There’s more info here.

For your amusement, Andy Cobb and the anti-fracking folks have produced an fun video, starring “Jerry Brown” as an aging Matthew (“Stetson cologne“) McConaughey. His stetson — battered but unbowed. His cologne — FrackWater. (Watch at the link.)

There’s an uncredited voice-over actor you may recognize. Enjoy. (You can sign the petition here. And thanks.)


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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15 Responses to “How fracking is exacerbating drought across America”

  1. Mark says:

    Is it their ideology that makes them so stupid? Or is it the stupidity that makes them so rightwing sociopathic? EIther way it isn’t worth trying to educate the uneducable. Just the fumes farmer grumpy has inhaled over his lifetime is enough to make him delusional.

  2. MstrJames says:

    some liberals wonder why their leaders might lie to them about things like global warming. Nanci Pelosi is a great example. She flies home on weekends in a 727, from washington to California, but thinks regular folks like me don’t need a gas guzzling minivan? Wow what an elitist bitch.

    Nancy Pelosi owns seven corporations and investment stocks in many companies. She should be barred from the discussion about income equality, because like nearly all democrats in Washington she is a 1 percenter (filthy rich) her wealth (20 million) is topped by Hillary Clintons $120 million. and John (ken doll)Kerrey at 194 million but his wife is worth 2.7 billion. So he is sorta wealthy right? And the list goes on.

    Nancy has millions invested in a natural gas corporation. So yes she would bash any other type of energy and promote the one that will propel her wealth upward. But I question her intelligence after she said ““I believe in natural gas as a clean, cheap alternative to fossil fuels,” she said at one point. Natural gas “is cheap, abundant and clean compared to fossil fuels,” she said at another.

    Could one of the liberal sheep on here, get her a message at your next nutcase rally? NANCY, NATURAL GAS IS A FOSSIL FUEL!!. Lol, and liberal sheep call me a luddite. As far as luddite type people, it was the democrat party that tried to close the patent office in the 1890’s and the 1930’s each time announcing that everything that could be invented had been invented. (what is dumber than a luddite?)
    So yes, ban fracking, but not on Nanci’s wells (yes natural gas has to be fracked too) or on obamas wells, Just ban fracking on oil wells they don’t own. (yes barry soetaro makes $72,000 per month off his energy royaties too)
    Keep voting for filthy rich socialist jetsetting democrats, who own gas and oil wells, and see if your life improves or the globe gets any cooler. baa ba ba :D
    To up food production a green house owner raises the CO2 and heat. maximum production is reached at 1000 ppm, we are presently at 330. So if global warming did happen food production world wide could increase as much as 40%. Wow an end to starvation. .. wouldn’t want that would we? Cause we all know the benevolent government feeds us right?
    P.s. keep “passing laws to see what’s in them”. Another insane quote of Nanci’s for the history books.

  3. MstrJames says:

    As a farmer and rancher I probably know at least as much as you do about water supplies. Water cycles. Sea water becomes rain and people use it. Any water pumped into the ground to frack, gets pumped right back out over the average 30-70 year life of the well, You think? Don’t assume because your more thoroughly brainwashed than me that I don’t have intelligence. That’s silly. There is not one drop of water less or more on earth than there was 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs peed it out.
    Liberals (anti capitalists) didn’t do anything to fix the ozone hole. They just caused factories to move to communist or 3 world countries where pollution is ignored. Study pollution increases in china and the pacific rim, it can literally be seen from space. So how does moving the pollution to the other side of the pacific fix the ozone hole? How does silliness like the Kyoto treaty fix anything? it just transfers manufacturing to countries that are not required to do anything about carbon production.
    YOu can talk about different ways to measure ice, but the article said if we lost x amount of ice caps ocean levels would rise. I merely pointed out that that supposedly did happen but our coastal cities are not under water. Somebody lied.
    I can understand after investing tremendous amounts of money and talk into global warming, banks media and government would quickly dispel anything a whistleblower said. Mars is warming up too, is that bushs fault also? Do you believe anybody except the people who have a vested interest in transferring business out of America?

  4. Naja pallida says:

    Wow, you could be a script writer for Sean Hannity. Seriously, you should look into it, I hear it pays well. I’m not sure why I’m bothering, but I guess I’m just bored…

    You first point, sea water and fresh water are different things. One cannot be used for farming or drinking. I’ll let you figure out which. Seawater isn’t even usable for fracking in many situations, due to undesirable chemical reactions with the wells. Plus, areas where shale gas is in many situations tends to be rather far away from the ocean, so getting seawater there isn’t as cost effective as simply draining the local drinking water supply. Then, after it is used for fracking, the water is completely contaminated and unusable for anything else, so is pumped back into the ground to cause earthquakes and pollute what is remaining in the area. Some places do use wells of non-potable water, and offshore wells do use seawater because it’s more chemically conducive to it.

    Secondly, there are different kinds of ice measurements. There’s coverage, thickness, and volume. None of those can be conflated, because they all have different concerns. If you want to make an argument, go look at some charts on arctic sea ice volume over time. They’re not hard to find. I promise you it isn’t increasing. But there’s a small problem with the whole issue of sea ice, and that is when floating ice melts, it doesn’t raise sea levels.

    True, there was much more carbon in the atmosphere during the carboniferous period. Thank you for at least acknowledging that there was such a geologic era, and that God didn’t put fossils here to test us. But there’s one problem, our current civilization could not exist as it is in a carboniferous environment without some drastic alterations to how we live as a species. Food sources would completely change, energy sources would completely change, many places that are currently heavily populated would find maintaining their infrastructure there untenable. Could we survive? Sure… some of us.

    The whole hacked emails thing was debunked in 2010. No less than eight independent investigations, along with numerous government, scientific, university and media agency analyses of the data determined that there was no attempt to defraud on anyone’s part, and that those emails did not say what you seem to think they said. I’m not sure what bankers funding things has to do with anything, but banks and large corporations are the ones paying useful idiots in Congress to deny climate change, because they are dramatically cheaper than what they’d pay to actually address climate change.

    Then there’s the hole in the ozone. Which is still there, but much improved. Mainly because countries around the world took it seriously and we stopped using most of the chemicals that were known to be causing ozone depletion. It is proof that when we want to fix something about the environment, we are capable of doing it, when Luddites aren’t standing in the way laughing at their own ignorance.

  5. MstrJames says:

    Global warming quacks should combine articles.
    This article whines about water being wasted to frack. While another article on this site worries that melting glaciers will raise sea levels hundreds of feet. Which is it? are we going to short on water or long?
    In the 90’s eviro-nuts said that if 40% of the north pole melted it would raise sea levels 300 feet. Around 2008 they said we had lost 40% of our ice mass. … so is the first 30 stories of new York buildings under water? , nope.
    Researchers have been watching a bridge on the east coast built at the time of George Washington. (230 years ago) they said sea levels have increased in that time about .6 mm, or about the thickness of your thumbnail.
    Another whackjob article on this site is “beer is good for you, but global warming, not so much”.
    That is very interesting. Mainly because the production of beer and pop is actually production of carbon dioxide. Yes! the bubbles in your beer and pop are man made carbon dioxide! Why don’t the environuts in the media fight beer and pop? Because advertising for those products pay their paychecks. And the like to get drunk on beer, Jack and coke while laughing at the gullible public.
    During the carboniferous period (giant reptiles, massive swamps and rainforests) oil and coal was produced. Its estimated that carbon in the atmosphere was 17x what it is now, yep 1700% And the world did NOT come to an end. Do warming conspiracy nuts realize that people produce Co2 in their bodies? Plants use Co2 and sunlight to produce food?
    Global warming was debunked several years ago. You remember? when certain individuals hacked the global warming center in England? 3 thousand emails from scientists around the world whining that they just couldn’t find evidence of the kind that would satisfy the conspiracy. And the center for global warming was funded by international bankers?
    I remember when enviro nuts screamed about pollution (1960’s) it was going to create a greenhouse effect (1970’s) then they said it would block the sun and cause eternal winter (late 1970’s) Then the found a hole in the ozone (1980’s) Then the hole disappeared (1990’s) so they created a new scare global warming from beer bubbles and cow farts. It takes about 10-12 years to debunk each anti capitalist, anti American eco-conspiracy.
    Don’t worry enviro-nuts, I heard a scientist on the radio recently who is launching a movement to further kill the American economy called GLOBAL DIMMING. He was working to create a theory that something man does blocks the UV rays (the opposite of ozone hole) that would cause all the plants to die and all animals and humans next.
    So you will still have reasons to call conservatives and minivan drivers, racists and fascists and blame it all on bush. And get paychecks for writing these scary, blame ridden articles. :D

  6. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s not a question that most people have any control over.

    It’s a question that was answered long ago in the aftermath of the Civil War when Congress, the White House and local governments became permanently and totally corrupt and the two party system was adopted.

    That will change when we create a socialist government, a workers government. Not before.

  7. BeccaM says:

    The aspect that infuriates me most is how, when an area is under extreme drought conditions and both residents and farmers have had their water use restricted — sometimes even to the point of banning irrigation and the drilling of new wells for water — the BigCarbon industry manages to be exempt from the restrictions.

    They get to use all the water they want. They get to frack more gas and oil wells, which is already known to put existing clean water sources at risk. They’re even getting states to pass laws to ban local governments from preventing this from happening (my former home state of Pennsylvania being one of them).

    Are we ever, as a species, going to put human lives ahead of short-term profit? I fear I already know the answer.

  8. cole3244 says:

    if you look at the future the vision is dire too say the least and the way no one addresses population and birth control i see no way to avoid a complete disaster sooner rather than later.

    i am old enough that i probably won’t have to deal with the cataclysm but the more info you see one can only surmise that the tipping point is much closer than we thought even a year ago.

  9. LanceThruster says:

    He rose to his feet.

    “If,” he said tersely, “we could for a moment move on to the subject of fiscal policy …”

    “Fiscal policy!” whooped Ford Prefect, “Fiscal policy!”

    The Management Consultant gave him a look that only a lungfish could have copied.

    “Fiscal policy …” he repeated, “that is what I said.”

    “How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”

    “If you would allow me to continue …”

    Ford nodded dejectedly.

    “Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”

    Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.

    “But we have also,” continued the Management Consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”

    Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The Management Consultant waved them down.

    “So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and … er, burn down all the forests. I think you’ll all agree that’s a sensible move under the circumstances.”

    The crowd seemed a little uncertain about this for a second or two until someone pointed out how much this would increase the value of the leaves in their pockets whereupon they let out whoops of delight and gave the Management Consultant a standing ovation. The accountants amongst them looked forward to a profitable Autumn.

    “You’re all mad,” explained Ford Prefect.

    “You’re absolutely barmy,” he suggested.

    “You’re a bunch of raving nutters,” he opined.

    (Douglas Adams – “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe ” – 1980)

  10. Indigo says:

    Of course they are. And never mind the oil-saturated wheat fields of western North Dakota because we can buy wheat from China or someplace thanks to all the wonderful money the frakked fields are generating from the oil sludge. Honestly . . . why hasn’t some spirituality entrepreneur or other built a nice big Temple to Mammon so people can get their religion on without hypocrisy?

  11. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    I took the lazy way out in trying to work this out and looked up energy consumption for reverse osmosis of seawater, which according to the source of all semi-trustworthy information (Wikipedia) requires about 3 to 5.5 kilowatt-hours per cubic meter of water. Let’s round that to 5 kWh per cu. m. Using the ratio of 8 barrels of water per barrel of oil extracted from the article above, that 1 cubic meter of water was sufficient to extract 0.125 cu. m. or 125 liters of petroleum. The density of petroleum varies widely but let us take 0.9 g/cc as a reasonable estimate. Hence 125 liters has a mass of about 112.5 kg. A little digging online produces a rough figure of 45 megajoules per kilo as the energy density of crude petroleum; hence burning 112.5 kg yields a round figure of about 5000 MJ or about 1400 kWh, about 280 times the energy needed to desalinate one cubic meter of seawater.

  12. Drew2u says:

    Here’s an article about North Dakota’s fight for drinking water from last year:

    I was wondering what the stats are for the wastewater holding ponds, what happens to the water, what happens to the heavy metals left behind, what choices are there for spill cleanups, what seeps into the surrounding water table, etc.
    “Sterling Belliveau, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Environment, said the
    water was analyzed by a consultant and deemed safe but it wasn’t tested
    for radioactivity. When the Environment Department discovered the waste
    water contained radioactive elements, it told Windsor to stop accepting

  13. BrianG says:

    The key is “our betters.” There is no common good. Everything is a commodity. Clean air, clean war, freedom from being poisoned by our food, those are all commodities bought and sold by the 1% for the 1%. We little folk don’t need environmental regulations. When the Earth becomes uninhabitable, the 1% will fly off into their utopian spacestations to wait until Earth becomes livable again. If you’re not one of them, you deserve it.

  14. MyrddinWilt says:

    Astonishing Gaius, I can’t do this right now but how much embodied energy is there in a barrel of clean water?

    If we end up using that fracked gas and oil to power desalination plants, is this even a breakeven proposition?

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