North Dakota wheat by United Nations
By Walter Brasch
Fracking--the process the oil and gas industry uses to extract fossil fuel as much as two miles below the ground--may directly impact the nation's water supply, reduce water-based recreational and sports activity, and lead to an increase in the cost of food.
The cocktail soup required for each well requires about two million pounds of silica sand, as much as 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals, and three to nine million gallons of fresh water. There are more than 500,000 active wells in the country.
In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Texas energy companies used about 26.5 billion gallons of water. Energy companies drilling Pennsylvania used the second greatest amount of water, followed by Colorado and Arkansas. Nuclear plants, which use more water, can recycle most of it. Because frack wastewater is toxic, oil and gas companies can't recycle the contaminated water.
The water is provided by companies that draw up to three million gallons a day from rivers and lakes, by individuals who sell water from their ponds, and by municipalities. Steubenville, Ohio, is tapping one of its reservoirs to sell up to 700,000 gallons of water every day for five years to Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest players in the fracking industry.
Big EnergyHowever, fresh water is not unlimited.
Beginning about five years ago, the water in the nation's aquifers has been decreasing significantly. The depletion since 2008, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. is about three times the rate as between 1900 through 2008.
Significant reductions in water availability are now common for the 1,450 mile long Colorado River, which provides water to about 40 million people in California and the southwest, including the agriculture-rich Imperial Desert of southeastern California. Lake Mead, a part of the Colorado system, provides water to Las Vegas and the Nevada desert communities; its water level is close to the point where the Department of the Interior will declare a water shortage and impose strict water-use regulation.
The depletion of the rivers, lakes, and aquifers is because of population growth, higher usage, climate change, and a severe drought that has spread throughout the Midwest and southwest for the past three years.
The C oalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), basing its analysis upon more than 25,000 wells, reports almost 47 percent of wells that use fracking were developed in areas with high or extremely high water stress levels; 92 percent of all gas wells in Colorado are in extremely high-stressed regions; In Texas, 51 percent are in high or extremely high stress water regions.
Water is so critical to fracking that oil and gas companies have been paying premium prices, as much as $1,000--$2,000 for about 326,000 gallons (an acre foot) and outbidding farmers in the drought-ravaged parts of the country for the water; the normal price is about $30--$100 for the same amount. Oil and gas drillers have also been trucking in water to the Midwest and southwest from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The companies are "going to pay what they need to pay," said Dr. Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.
If farmers have to pay more for water, they will raise the prices of their product. If they can't get enough water, because the energy companies are taking as much as they can get, they grow fewer crops and reduce the size of their livestock herds; this, also, will force food prices up. It's a simple case of supply and demand.
But, there are other problems. Some farmers and owners of corporate farms who have large water resources often sell that water to the energy companies; they can get more money for the water and leave their fields barren than they can get for growing crops and selling them to wholesalers and distributors.
Another reality may be driving food prices higher.
Fossil fuel mining and agriculture have always co-existed. But, that is changing.