Fracking an Arid Landscape: New Report Examines Freshwater Availability near Gas Reserves

As governments around the world consider tapping into their shale gas reserves through fracking, a new report cautions them to consider a key factor: available freshwater. The World Resources Institute (WRI) found that 38 percent of shale resources lie beneath arid or water-stressed regions. These areas may face water shortages and disputes when fracking’s enormous thirst for water competes with other local uses.

Fracking often requires millions of gallons of water per well in order to release the gas locked deep within the bedrock. And even though this accounts for a tiny portion of total water withdrawals in a country (0.1 percent in the U.S.), the effects are amplified locally. For instance, in 2008, fracking in Johnson County, Texas consumed nearly one third of total county water withdrawals. When fracking occurs in water-stressed areas, it can potentially create shortages and impact farmers and communities relying on the same water resources. 

WRI’s analysis drew from its Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, a global map displaying levels of water risk (i.e., the chance that a region will experience drought or water stress). Paradoxically, regions rich in shale gas are not necessarily endowed with water resources. China, for instance, has the highest volume of recoverable shale gas of any country, yet these resources lie in regions that often experience high water stress. The same is true for eight of the top 20 countries with the largest recoverable gas reserves.

Moreover, the report found that regions with the potential for shale gas extraction are collectively home to 386 million people. The population in these regions depends on local fresh water to grow crops and meet household needs. Fracking puts an additional demand on local aquifers that can lead to local tensions and conflict, even in times of low water risk. Furthermore, variability in available water resources also represents a business risk for drilling companies.

The WRI report outlines various recommendations for improving water governance in regions considering developing their shale resources:

  • Drilling companies should conduct a water risk analysis in order to understand available resources.
  • Drilling companies must also try to reduce their use of freshwater as much as possible.
  • Governments should improve water monitoring and requiring companies to disclose their water consumption.
  • Finally, both drilling companies and governments should seek input from community members and other local stakeholders in improving water governance.

Water resources are becoming more precarious in the face of a changing climate. Proper planning and allocation prior to developing shale resources may help relieve conflicts surrounding water resources. Moreover, governments must consider the impacts on water resources in policy decisions requiring fracking approvals.

Visit the report’s appendix to view maps of shale gas reserves overlaid with water risk data for 11 countries with shale resources, including the U.S.

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