U.S. Lacks Data Needed to Weigh Effects of Oil and Gas Production on Western Water Supply

Cows stand in front of equipment used to extract oil in the Permian Basin in Texas, May 2018.

At a time when policymakers, land managers, and the public should weigh and scrutinize any demands on Western water, they are missing critical information to help inform whether, where, and how energy development should take place. The federal government has no standard reporting requirements for energy companies related to water use, and it lacks comprehensive data sources on the risks that existing or proposed oil and gas wells on public lands pose to nearby water supplies.

For these reasons, the impact of energy development on water—both on its quantity and quality—is not well known. Without the necessary data, it’s difficult to ascertain how much water particular oil and gas projects will use—and even more rare to have before and after studies to assess any impacts on water quality. This column outlines the threats and harmful effects of certain energy development practices on the West’s water supply and discusses how the lack of available data on water quality and quantity perpetuates these impacts. It then provides four recommendations for policymakers to consider as they address the West’s worsening water crisis.

The American West has a water problem

The West’s growing population is consuming vast quantities of water while snowpack and summer rainfall struggle to keep pace. Climate change is worsening the situation by exacerbating droughts and wildfires that further stress the water quality and supply in the region. Jarring reports of low lake levels, depleted aquifers, and the mighty Colorado River running dry before reaching the ocean highlight the role of climate change in the West’s water problem.

Furthermore, a recent CAP analysis found that half of Western rivers are altered by human activity, contributing to the rivers’ degradation. Scientists have studied the demands that agriculture and expanding urban areas in the West put on precious water resources, and policymakers and researchers have attempted for decades to define the scope of the West’s water problem and ways that communities and agriculture can more efficiently use water. But easy solutions are hard to come by and require more data and analysis—both of which are lacking.

Oil and gas development are worsening the West’s water problem

Agricultural, thermoelectric powerplants, and municipal water consumption each still dwarf water used for energy extraction, according the U.S. Geological Survey. But resource-intensive drilling and fracking operations are exacerbating Western water troubles, particularly in drier regions.

Perhaps the most striking example of energy development’s water conflicts comes from the Permian Basin. This 86,000-square-mile area spanning southeastern New Mexico and western Texas is one of the largest oil and gas producing regions in the world and accounted for 20 percent of U.S. oil and 9 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2017.

The methods necessary for extracting oil and gas in the Permian require vast amounts of water. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting water mixed with industrial chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations to extract oil or gas. In the hot, dry Permian Basin, producers use up to 600,000 barrels of water to frack a single well. Right now, there are more than 400 active drill rigs in the area, each drilling multiple wells with varying techniques. Rystad Energy estimates that, by 2020, demand for water in the Permian will surpass 2.5 billion barrels a year—more than twice the amount of water producers used in the region in 2016.

With water resources at a premium, leading energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie wrote, “From sourcing to disposal, water is becoming the largest challenge” to energy development in the region. The firm goes on to suggest that water challenges will likely increase costs for producers; what is left unsaid is the impact the increased demand for water in the region will have on ranchers and farmers; local communities; wildlife, and other water users. While developers race to access scarce water resources, government agencies and the public are largely left in the dark when it comes to tracking water use and its disposal related to energy development due to the lack of reliable, consistent data.

Data availability and estimates on impacts to the water supply vary widely

Western stakeholders deserve the full picture when weighing in on land use plans for public lands. But asking the public to consider energy development proposals without information to fully understand impacts to water is like asking people to review a book that is missing chapters. Stakeholders need complete and consistent data on water quantity and quality to effectively address threats that oil and gas development pose to water resources.

Water quantity

Fracking uses significantly more water than the amount needed to conventionally drill for oil. Exactly how much is used, though, depends on factors ranging from geology and equipment to availability of water and water recycling practices. These differences complicate water-use estimations.

A study conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 and updated in 2015 to estimate water use for oil and gas extraction struggled with inconsistent and incomplete information. The two earlier reports estimated oil and gas extraction in the United States used 2.4 billion gallons of water daily. A more recent study combined information from some state, federal, and private data sets and found a 770 percent increase in water use per fracked well over a five-year period, starting in 2011. The underlying data sets often rely on voluntary industry reporting; often don’t distinguish between oil and gas wells or drilling methods; or don’t separate data on water sources—for example, injected fresh water, water found in the oil and gas formations, or recycled water. The resulting analyses run the risk of underestimating the water amounts.

In 2018, the USGS published a conceptual model for assessing fracking water use. The agency cautioned, however, that the initial step of procuring suitable data is difficult due to inconsistencies across local, state, and federal data. The USGS is also continuing to work on a national assessment of water availability and use, as required by a 2009 law. If fully supported, the results could shed additional light on water use for energy production.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of public lands in the West are available for oil and gas drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) documents that guide this development—called resource management plans (RMPs)—provide little information in terms of details about the water impacts of the reasonably foreseeable development of oil and gas. For instance, in Colorado’s BLM Uncompahgre Field Office draft RMP and environmental impact statement, none of the BLM’s offered alternatives for how the agency may manage the land provide information on how the proposed oil and gas extraction would affect the region’s water supply. This is a major omission given that energy development would surround the state’s North Fork Valley, which is home to working farms, ranches, and vineyards that rely on clean and reliable water. The RMP for public lands in the Permian Basin is no better: The planning documents do not provide data related to the effects of oil and gas extraction on water quality or quantity; instead, the agency assures readers in an appendix that appropriate measures will be taken to limit adverse impacts on water resources.

The BLM’s 2015–2020 Water Resource Program Strategy takes an important step by acknowledging that its data are disorganized because the agency lacks robust and systematic processes for “storing, managing, and sharing water quality and quantity data within the BLM and among various agencies and stakeholder groups.” The strategy document suggests that the BLM will work to increase the effectiveness of RMPs through stakeholder engagement and setting water resource goals, although recent draft RMPs don’t appear to show much improvement in this regard.

Water quality

Mistakes during extraction could be catastrophic for water quality, particularly in places such as New Mexico and Texas where oil and gas production is high and the geology increases the risk of water contamination and land collapses.

A study of the 30 largest publicly traded oil and gas producers in North America, written with investors in mind, found that companies aren’t keen on disclosing chemical toxicity information or pre- and post-drilling water quality monitoring practices. Without sufficient baseline groundwater quality data and continued monitoring, underground water contamination could go unnoticed until it’s too late to mitigate damages to the drinking water supply.

In addition to the possibility of destroying clean drinking water for growing populations, fracking can threaten the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers near production sites. In a recent House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing, a North Dakota farmer testified that soil remediation from leaks and spills of an oil and gas extraction byproduct can cost up to several million dollars per acre. The farmer recommended that Congress should require baseline water testing prior to drilling, in addition to stronger standards and enforcement for wastewater, and should hold companies who pollute responsible.

Conclusion

Oil and gas extraction is contributing to the water crisis in the West by increasing demand on stressed resources and causing outsize risk to healthy drinking water supplies. Stakeholders who depend on clean water for livelihoods and daily living; policymakers; and land and water managers would benefit from access to accurate, detailed, and consistent information on energy development’s impacts to water quality and quantity—something that, today, is sorely lacking. In order to address the growing water crisis in the West, Congress, the BLM, and the USGS should take the following steps:

  1. To better inform the BLM’s RMPs and land managers, the USGS should track and publicize water-for-energy use from public lands. The secretary of the interior should use authority under the 2009 law to have the USGS assess impacts of energy extraction on ground water availability.
  2. To empower stakeholders such as farmers and ranchers with information, the BLM should provide a clear and consistent picture across RMPs of the potential impacts from proposed oil and gas development to water quality and quantity within the relevant watershed.
  3. To ensure the national assessment of water availability and use is as robust as possible, Congress should disregard President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal—which called for a 25 percent cut to the relevant USGS program—and, instead, appropriate all necessary funds.
  4. To better understand energy extraction impacts on water quality, Congress should appropriate funding to conduct baseline studies and periodic monitoring of groundwater sources for each fracking event. This could be modeled after a similar 2012 study that the USGS conducted with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Congress took an important step in 2009 when it required the USGS to assess water use. It must continue to fund research efforts, and land management agencies must work to integrate existing and future water information for the public to properly engage in public land management.

Mary Ellen Kustin is the director of policy for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. 

The author would like to thank Kate Kelly, Nicole Gentile, and Shanée Simhoni for their contributions to this column.