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The Environmental Impact of Fracking on Water Resources

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Introduction to Fracking

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used to extract oil and natural gas from deep underground rock formations. By injecting high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals into the ground, fracking creates small fractures in the rock, allowing gas and oil to flow more freely to the production wells. This method has revolutionized the energy industry, making previously inaccessible resources available for extraction.


For landowners and oil and gas mineral owners, understanding fracking's environmental impact—particularly its effect on water resources—is essential. This blog post dives deep into the topic, examining how fracking operations can affect local water supplies, providing real-world examples, and offering advice on how you can protect your water resources.


Fracking's Impact on Water Resources

Water Contamination

One of the most significant concerns surrounding fracking is its potential to contaminate water supplies. During the hydraulic fracturing process, the mixture of water, sand, and chemicals injected into the ground can sometimes leak into nearby groundwater sources. These chemicals can include toxic substances like benzene and lead, which pose serious health risks if they enter drinking water supplies.


Studies have shown that fracking operations can lead to the migration of methane and other contaminants into aquifers, affecting the water quality of nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported instances where fracking fluids have contaminated private wells, highlighting the need for stringent safety measures and monitoring.


Water Usage

Fracking requires a substantial amount of water. On average, a single fracking operation can use between 1.5 million and 9.7 million gallons of water. This usage can strain local water supplies, especially in arid regions or areas experiencing drought. The heavy water demand can impact not only local communities but also ecosystems that depend on these water sources.


In states like Texas and Colorado, where water scarcity is a growing concern, the competition for water between fracking operations, agriculture, and residential use is becoming increasingly intense. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for landowners who need to balance the benefits of leasing mineral rights with the potential impact on their water resources.


Wastewater Disposal

After the fracking process is complete, a significant portion of the injected water returns to the surface as wastewater, also known as flow back. This wastewater contains a mixture of fracking chemicals, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials from deep underground. Proper disposal of this wastewater is critical to prevent environmental contamination.


In some cases, wastewater is treated and reused for future fracking operations. However, more commonly, it is injected back into deep underground wells. Improper disposal can lead to surface spills or leakage into groundwater, posing further risks to water quality.


Types of Water

Two main sources of onshore water can meet the water supply needs demanded by communities in the United States:


Groundwater

Groundwater is extracted or produced by drilling a well. Groundwater can either be privately owned or publicly owned. Most privately owned groundwater is owned by the surface owner, not the mineral owner. Whether the surface owner drills the water well themselves or contracts with a company to drill a water well, production limits can still be set by state regulatory agencies. Groundwater owned by the State (such as Wyoming) is usually allocated based on meeting the needs of a community and/or prioritized by beneficial use (agriculture, biological, commercial, etc.)  


Surface water

Surface water, such as rivers, streams, and lakes, is owned by the states for the benefit of the public. In many cases, owners of the adjoining surface may be allowed to use water in rivers, streams, and lakes, but not own it.

  • FracFocus reported that most of the water used for fracking comes from rivers, lakes (surface water), and municipal suppliers.

  • Bluefield Research reports that spending on water supply, transport, treatment, storage, and disposal has increased 12% per year from $11.74 billion to $15.49 billion by the close of 2019. They also predict that water management spending for hydraulic fracturing is forecasted to average US$17 billion per year from 2019 through 2028.

  • As reported by the USGS, fracking by US oil and gas companies can use 1.5 to 9.7 million gallons of water in a single operation. However, this only accounts for less than 1% of America's total industrial water use according to a paper published by researchers at Duke University.


Instances of Fracking Affecting Water Resources

Pavillion, Wyoming

In Pavillion, Wyoming, residents reported foul-smelling, discolored water after fracking operations began nearby. Subsequent investigations by the EPA found evidence of fracking chemicals in the drinking water wells, leading to a significant public health concern. This case underscores the importance of rigorous monitoring and regulation to prevent similar incidents.


Dimock, Pennsylvania

Dimock became a focal point of the fracking debate when residents discovered high levels of methane in their drinking water. The contamination was linked to faulty well casings in nearby fracking operations, which allowed methane to migrate into the aquifer. This case highlights the need for robust engineering practices and regular inspections to ensure the integrity of fracking wells.


Barnett Shale, Texas

The Barnett Shale region in Texas has seen extensive fracking activity, raising concerns about water usage and contamination. Studies in the area have shown elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater near fracking sites, suggesting a possible link between fracking and water quality issues. This case illustrates the cumulative impact of widespread fracking operations on regional water resources.


Regulatory Measures and Environmental Policies

  • Federal Regulations

  • In the United States, several federal regulations aim to protect water resources from the impacts of fracking.

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulates the injection of fluids underground to prevent contamination of drinking water sources.

  • The Clean Water Act (CWA) governs the discharge of pollutants into surface waters, ensuring that fracking operations do not degrade water quality.

  • State Regulations

  • State governments also play a crucial role in regulating fracking activities.

  • States like Colorado and Pennsylvania have implemented specific regulations to address water usage, chemical disclosure, and well integrity.

  • These state-level regulations often complement federal laws, providing a comprehensive framework for protecting water resources.

  • Voluntary Industry Practices

  • Many oil and gas companies have adopted voluntary practices to minimize the environmental impact of fracking.

  • These practices include using non-toxic fracking fluids, recycling wastewater, and conducting baseline water quality assessments before drilling.

  • While voluntary, these initiatives demonstrate a growing recognition within the industry of the need for sustainable operations.


Technological Innovations

Water Treatment Technologies

Advancements in water treatment technologies are helping to reduce the environmental impact of fracking. Companies are developing innovative methods to treat and recycle wastewater, reducing the need for freshwater and minimizing the risk of contamination. For example, advanced filtration systems and reverse osmosis can remove contaminants from flowback water, making it safe for reuse in future operations.


Leak Detection Systems

Emerging technologies are also improving the ability to detect and prevent leaks. Advanced sensors and monitoring systems can detect changes in pressure and chemical composition in real-time, allowing operators to identify and address potential leaks before they cause significant damage. These technologies enhance the safety and sustainability of fracking operations.


Reduced Water Usage Techniques

Some companies are exploring methods to reduce the amount of water needed for fracking. For instance, using alternative fluids such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or carbon dioxide (CO2) can significantly decrease water usage. These alternatives not only conserve water but also reduce the volume of wastewater generated.


The Role of Landowners and Mineral Owners

Understanding Your Rights

For landowners and mineral owners, understanding your rights is crucial when dealing with fracking operations. Familiarize yourself with local and state regulations regarding water rights and mineral leases. Ensure that any agreements you enter into include provisions for protecting your water resources and outline the responsibilities of the fracking company.


Monitoring and Reporting

Active participation in monitoring and reporting is essential for safeguarding your water resources. Regularly test your water quality and maintain records of any changes. If you notice any signs of contamination, report them immediately to the relevant authorities and the fracking company. Prompt action can prevent further damage and ensure that necessary remediation measures are taken.


Community Engagement

Engaging with your community can amplify your efforts to protect water resources. Collaborate with other landowners, local environmental groups, and community organizations to share information and advocate for stronger regulations. Collective action can lead to a more significant impact and drive positive change in how fracking operations are conducted.


Understanding Oil and Gas Contamination

Fracking has reshaped the energy landscape, offering new opportunities for resource extraction. However, its impact on water resources cannot be overlooked. For landowners and gas and oil mineral owners, understanding the risks and taking proactive measures is essential to protect your water supplies and ensure sustainable operations.


LandGate has created value and risk index scores unique to every property across the country. Whether you are a landowner looking for a free property report of your land or you would like to gain access to all parcels across the country with our LandApp subscription, you will be able to view the risk index scores. We have provided proprietary risk assessments for things like oil and gas contamination, industrial contamination, electricity blackout risk, and natural disasters. 


LandGate's value and risk index scores


Can I lease my water rights?

Yes, landowners can lease water rights! Anyone who is 'downstream' may be interested in leasing your water rights. Landowners can list their water rights for lease or sale on LandGate's marketplace for free.



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