Fracking and Water Scarcity

Green MEPs and anti-fracking activists pose with "fracking-flavored" water outside the European Parliament in September 2012. (Photo: C European Union 2012)

For this year's World Water Day, the United Nations focused on the relationship between water and energy. Energy is an unavoidable necessity, but energy production uses enormous amounts of water. Consequently, as global energy demands increase, water scarcity grows more acute. According to the U.N. report, "Currently, 90 percent of energy production relies on intensive and non-reusable water models that are not sustainable." The climate-change loop only exacerbates this problem. As more fossil fuels are burned, more greenhouses gases are released into the atmosphere, warming the planet and increasing the frequency and severity of droughts.

The U.N. report projects that global water demand will increase by 55 percent by mid-century, and that more than 40 percent of the world's population will be living in areas of extreme water stress. Water scarcity is most critical in developing parts of Africa and Asia, where scarcity threatens human needs as well as agriculture, industry and the potential for economic growth. But water problems are hardly exclusive to developing countries. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 38 percent of the continental United States is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought (almost all of it west of the Mississippi River). California—which produces nearly half of the country's fruits, vegetables and nuts—is in its third year of drought, with water reserves this year on track to be the worst in 500 years.

California also sits on the Monterey Shale formation, which holds more shale oil than anywhere else in the country, and which has oil companies drooling over the fracking possibilities. Fracking, however, threatens water supplies in a number of ways, putting the tension between water and energy into sharp relief. There is a similar tension in parts of northern China, where water scarcity is alarming, and yet where the government is incentivizing companies to frack for natural gas. As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns the world yet again that we really need to take serious steps to address climate change in the next few years, extreme methods of energy extraction warrant serious consideration of the irreversible damage those methods wreak.

Hydraulic fracturing

Fracking involves blasting water mixed with chemicals and sand into rock formations buried deep in the earth in order to extract oil and gas. About 25 percent of those chemicals are carcinogens. When cement casings crack and leak, the chemicals contaminate groundwater, turning water supplies toxic, rendering properties worthless, poisoning wildlife. Fracking also releases hazardous gases like methane and benzene into the atmosphere, poisoning the air. Methane is an exponentially more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—gasoline on the fire for climate change. And according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, fracking sites in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, which is rich in natural gas, are releasing between 100 and 1,000 times as much methane as EPA estimates. Plus, fracking induces earthquakes. So when U.S. President Barack Obama touts natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future, there's plenty he's not mentioning.

On top of all that, the average fracking well uses between 2.5 million and 5 million gallons of freshwater, seven times as much as the exploration of traditional natural gas. For Californians near the Monterey Shale, this is particularly distressing. "California is in the midst of a historic drought, and fracking exacerbates that," Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, tells "Fracking uses enormous quantities of fresh water, and once you use that water it's contaminated and is removed from the water cycle for good."

The Center for Biological Diversity is among more than 150 organizations that have joined the Californians Against Fracking coalition, which is calling on Governor Jerry Brown to ban fracking. "The vision of the majority of Californians is that fracking has no place in our state," Siegel says. "The oil companies are the only ones that are going to benefit from the fracking boom in California. … In fact, renewable energy is far better for California's economy. Investing in renewable energy creates far more jobs than investing in further fossil fuel development." There is movement on the issue. A bill in the California Senate to place a moratorium on fracking has passed its first committee and will be heard by a second committee in a week. Meanwhile, cities in California like Santa Cruz and Carson have passed their own moratoriums.


The United States is way out in front of any other country on the fracking boom. In the Eagle Ford Shale area in Texas alone, more than 8,000 oil and gas wells are actively drilling, with another 5,000 in the pipeline. There are about 40,000 in the country overall. China has fewer than 100. Although, China is looking to make up that ground, with a target of producing 6.5 billion cubic meters of shale next year and 60 billion to 100 billion cubic meters by 2020. Those are aggressive growth projections, but China's Ministry of Land and Resources estimates that the country's shale gas reserves are the biggest in the world, a third larger than those in the United States.

Last month, state oil and gas company Sinopec announced significant breakthroughs at a fracking site in the south of China. In response, the government raised the prices paid for new gas supply and made natural gas pipelines open to third-party drillers, thus further opening up the gas market. But again, much of China's climate is extremely arid. According to the Scholars Strategy Network, "Few places in the world are facing such acute scarcity of water as is northern China, the region surrounding the nation’s capital in Beijing. Over the past three decades, rapid economic development and population growth have caused a dramatic water shortage in the region. Groundwater tables have dropped so precipitously that in some places wells cannot be dug deep enough to reach water." China has launched two massive, complicated national projects to address water scarcity, but "if they fail or fall apart, as seems likely, these efforts could actually make water scarcity much worse."

Long-term versus short-term thinking

China has to find a way to meet its ballooning energy needs, but at what cost? All of North America should be asking the same question, as debates are happening right now in Mexico and Canada as well. Murmurs can even be heard about fracking in Europe now that the showdown with Russia has everyone sweating. There are multiple reasons to oppose fracking, but the water issue has to be at the top of the list. No one wants to live without sufficient energy supplies, but living without sufficient water isn't possible. As climate change deepens the problem, developed and developing countries alike need leadership that is geared toward the long term. (For an example of complete wrongheadedness on the water issue, see the World Bank's plans for water privatization.)

In the United States, the EPA has totally dropped the ball on fracking, especially with regard to water contamination. Cowing to political pressure, the agency closed investigations into contamination in Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Texas in 2012 and 2013. An EPA document leaked last year showed that fracking had indeed contaminated aquifers in Pennsylvania, contrary to the agency's official position. Also last year, the investigation in Wyoming was essentially turned over to the drilling company that owned the wells in question.

From the bottom up, though, people are being activated on the fracking issue every day, because it affects them where they live. As the dangers of fracking become increasingly apparent, voices in opposition grow louder and more numerous. And just yesterday, a jury in Texas awarded a family $3 million in its suit against a fracking company. The family sued because the company exposed them to hazardous gases and made them sick. A judge still has to sign off, and appeals may follow, but it's a blow against the industry, one sure to be lauded by citizens from California to New York. After all, this boom is making plenty of people sick.

Joshua Pringle has a master's in international relations from New York University. He is the senior editor of

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.

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