Sustainability Energy

In drought-stricken states, fossil fuel production jeopardizes limited water supplies

Some of the country’s leading oil and gas producing states are facing drought and water shortages.
Close up of a pumpjack in a oil field.

Story at a glance

  • Oil and gas production can affect water supplies both directly and indirectly.

  • The process can reduce the amount of water available for other uses, and pose pollution threats to an already scarce resource.

  • Research shows transitioning to renewable energy sources like wind and solar can mitigate these risks while conserving water. 

Fossil fuels are primarily notorious for the carbon emissions and air pollution they release when burned. But production of oil and gas in the United States can also take a toll on the nation’s water resources, posing risks to dwindling supplies in drought-stricken states. 

This is thanks to the large quantities of water used in some oil and gas production processes, the pollution threats they pose to nearby water sources and those carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change and thereby further exacerbate drought and aridification. 

“Fracking and drilling contribute to climate change and suck up finite water resources, then drought and wildfires worsen from climate change,” summarizes a recent report from the nongovernmental organization Food and Water Watch. “At the same time, oil and gas development pollutes and threatens California’s finite freshwater resources.” 

States and companies are working to mitigate those impacts by shifting away from certain drilling practices or reusing wastewater generated for future oil and gas production.  

A broader solution may also lie in the transition to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, which would reduce the threat of water pollution, help conserve water going forward and cut down emissions, too.

Fossil fuel production can drain water supplies 

Energy production accounts for around 40 percent of all water withdrawals in the United States.

The recent Food and Water Watch report found that in California alone, oil and gas operators used 3 billion gallons of freshwater from municipal sources between 2018 and 2021, an amount equal to what would be used in more than 120 million showers. 

And those withdrawals from municipal sources only make up a tiny part of the industries’ overall water usage. In total, according to the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, oil and gas industries in the state consume more than 280 billion gallons of water for extraction and refining each year.

In some cases, companies drill deep wells to access groundwater supplies, depleting shallower wells some communities rely on.

One method of oil and gas extraction, hydraulic fracturing, or the practice of fracturing shale, sandstone and carbonate rock to access the resources, uses between 1.5 million to around 16 million gallons of water per well

The significant use of water for fracking in some areas of the country could impact aquatic habitats and availability of water for other uses, according to the Energy Information Administration

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California plans to phase out the practice by 2024, but fracking is prominent in Texas, the nation’s top natural-gas producing state. Over half of the state is also currently in at least a moderate drought. 

One study found that from 2011 to 2016, the amount of water used per fracking well rose by 770 percent, leading authors to conclude future operations will require larger volumes of water, leading to more produced oil and gas wastewater. 

An additional analysis that looked at water consumed by fracking in 11 oil and gas producing states revealed that, at the county level, roughly half of hydraulic fracturing water usage took place under arid climates in western and central states. 

The findings provided evidence “that the water consumption by [hydraulic fracturing] intensifies local water competition and alters water supply threatened by climate variability,” the authors wrote. 

Refining the fuels once they’re extracted also requires notable amounts of water. When it comes to crude oil, for instance, it takes around 1.5 barrels of water to process 1 barrel in a typical refinery. 

The threat of water pollution

For some water-scarce areas, the threat of oil and gas polluting water supplies is more pressing than the amount of water used in production. 

In California, oil and gas production uses nowhere near the amount of water consumed by other sectors like agriculture. But these operations can pose hazards to local supplies thanks to leaks or spills during extraction or transportation, or via disposal practices. 

For the state’s water supplies, the industries pose “more of a quality problem, not a quantity problem,” said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. 

When oil and gas operations use water, they also extract oil or gas mixed with water, explained Escriva-Bou. This can be treated to remove the fuels, but he said the process is complicated.

Often, Escriva-Bou said, the water goes back to streams, rivers or ponds. Making sure the treated water is of a certain quality before being returned to those sources is paramount to avoid pollution. The operations also pose the threat of spills, which could contaminate water resources or environmentally sensitive areas.  

Fracking also produces large amounts of potentially toxic wastewater, which require proper handling, treatment and storage. If it’s mismanaged, the wastewater runs the risk of contaminating surrounding areas, including groundwater and drinking water

The majority of wastewater produced by the oil and gas industry is disposed of through underground injection, a process in which the water can no longer be accessed or used. 

But reuse of flowback, or liquid that returns to the surface after being injected, could help mitigate the water stress posed by oil and gas production. 

Each year, oil and gas production in Texas yields 3.8 billion barrels of wastewater in the arid Permian Basin alone — the state’s main oil-producing zone. The region is estimated to face a water deficit of 20 billion gallons per year by 2030. 

To help mitigate the water shortage in some areas of the state, companies are beginning to recycle wastewater, though the process can be expensive.

The role of renewables

Wastewater management can only go so far in mitigating the threat oil and gas production poses to water supplies, however. Efforts to transition away from the fuels could have more impact — in reducing both their direct effects on water supplies and their contribution to climate change.

Some of that impact has already been shown through studies and real-world efforts to transition to renewable energy sources.

From 2015 to 2020, the U.S. electric power sector decreased its use of water overall, thanks in part to a significant increase in renewable generation. 

California’s energy sector, specifically, is becoming less water-intensive. Thermoelectric plants in the state are switching to recycled water or ocean water for cooling. Additionally, solar and wind power are both growing in the state, which could improve the sector’s drought resilience, by minimizing water use overall.

One 2019 case study found solar and wind energy not only enhance drought resilience in California, but also benefit groundwater sustainability. And the drought is giving a boost to solar power generation, as less rain falling means clearer skies and more sun to draw on.

“These renewables are actually displacing more water intensive fossil fuel-based energy sources like natural gas or even nuclear,” said Escriva-Bou.

“What we are expecting, is that given the increase in renewables, the water footprint of electricity generation [in California] is going to decrease over time.” 

Should the state transition to 100 percent renewable sources, it could save 82 million cubic meters of water annually, data suggest. “This is a 98 percent reduction from current levels consumed for fossil fuel and nuclear electrical generation,” the Food and Water Watch report reads. 

“California’s water withdrawals could be reduced by over 99 percent while producing the same amount of energy — amounting to nearly 6.3 billion cubic meters of water.”

Additional research shows increased utilization of wind and solar power “will reduce water consumption at an even greater magnitude than the transition from coal to natural gas, eliminating much of water withdrawals and consumption for electricity generation in the US.” 

Retrofitting thermal plants with dry cooling systems and boosting use of wind and solar power could decrease water consumption by up to 50 percent. 

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