Energy Development and Water Use: Use Only What You Need

Oil and natural gas account for a significant production of both domestic and global energy supply. Recent developments have placed water use by these necessary development operations under scrutiny, but how much are we really using?

Current and Future Energy Production

Worldwide energy consumption is expected to rise annually by two percent globally. In the United States, coal provides 37% of domestic energy generation, national gas provides 30%, and petroleum provides approximately 2%. With recent concerns such as emissions of harmful pollutants, generation by coal has dropped significantly over the past few years, while energy from natural gas has risen by over eleven percent from 2005-2012 alone. With a reduced carbon footprint, smaller emissions, and abundant reserves, natural gas is leading the way for the future of power generation in America. This led to the retrofitting of many power plants across the United States, changing their generation methods from coal to natural gas.  The increase in natural gas power plants lead to an increased need for natural gas development domestically.

Most oil and gas wells currently developed are from unconventional sources using a process called hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing is a technique that uses water, additives, and proppant to stimulate formations, which then release the natural resources into previously developed infrastructure. To date over one million wells have been fractured worldwide, with the technology expected to lead the way in oil and gas development for years to come. This technique of development has thus begun a conversation about energy development and the use of water.

Water Use in Hydraulic Fracturing

Multiple issues are associated with hydraulic fracturing and water use. Those issues include the amount of water used and its removal from the hydrologic cycle. Each issue presents its own set of problems, benefits, and solutions.

The process of hydraulic fracturing begins with drilling a well and installing a protective sheath that is called casing. This casing isolates the wellbore from the outside environment including water reservoirs and aquifers, if applicable. Once the wellbore has been isolated, the shale formation will be fraced in individual stages.

The process of fracing uses high pressure injection into formations of a solution made up of 90.6% water, 8.5-9% proppant, and approximately .5% additives. The solutions are injected into the formation at high pressures to stimulate cracks in the formation, which produces oil and natural gas.

Water Use for Energy Development

The porosity of the formation, length of the wellbore, and depth of the formation all contribute to the total amount of water that is used per well. For example, in the Marcellus Shale formation, a low permeability natural gas shale, the average well consumes 4.5 million gallons of water. The Wattenberg field in Colorado uses an average of 2.7 million gallons of water, due to it varying formations and characteristics. In Texas, depending on the field being produced the amount ranges from 2.7 million gallons to 5.7 million gallons. In the Bakken formation in North Dakota, the largest energy play in the United States, consisting of mostly oil with associated gas, the average well only consumes 1.5 million gallons. With approximately 93% of future development projected to use fracing, water use associated with the process of fracturing will increase as well. From “2012 to 2014 the extraction method consumed roughly 48 billion gallons of water per year” and from 2005 to 2014 total water use constituted 248 billion gallons of water.

While this seems like very large amounts of water, it is important to note that total water use for hydraulic fracturing is actually less than one percent of the total industrial water use in the United States, approximately 0.97%. Further, in Colorado total use of water for fracturing was approximately .08% in 2010, and was estimated to reach .1% of total water use in the state in 2014 according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Like most western states, Colorado uses the doctrine of prior appropriation. “Each state has its own variation on either the prior appropriation or riparian doctrine (some states have both) for stream water, plus other doctrines for underground water.” In Colorado, the prior appropriation doctrine is typically labeled as “first in time, first in right.” Thus once an individual has put the water to beneficial use, that person has secured a water right. In Colorado, those secured water rights are transferable, salable, or available for lease in some instances. Therefore, oil and gas operators must work with water rights holders in order to secure the water required for drilling and fracing operations.

For example, the prior appropriation doctrine in Colorado requires water right holders to “use or lose” their possessed water right. Under this theory, senior water right holders are entitled to a certain amount of water, and must use that allotted amount of water or lose the water right altogether. After senior right holders have been satisfied with their allotted amounts, “junior” water right holders will then be satisfied, working down the list by way of appropriation date. This is the essence of the first in time, first in right doctrine. Oil and gas developers will usually either lease water from senior appropriators with surplus, such as a municipality or farmer that may not need all of their appropriation, or approach junior water right holders whose water right will be fulfilled during a particular season. Thus, there is a shared benefit of water right holders ensuring that all their appropriated water has been used, and oil and gas companies are legally securing all the water they need for development. In certain instances, energy companies will purchase water rights from individuals or entities, which will ensure that they have a legal and reliable source of water for development. Water rights holders then receive a fair price for a right they may not have used anymore and thus risked losing without any compensation.

Once water has been used for the fracing process, disposal and removal from the hydrologic cycle are the next important issues. A significant amount of produced and flowback water from operations typically is disposed of by injection wells. The disposal process entails collecting the water from the drill site, and transporting it to a disposal site, where the water is injected into an isolated rock formation, such as a sandstone or limestone formation, similar to other disposal methods used for medical waste. Injection well depth will range depending on location of the injection well and the formation that the waste will be stored in.

This disposal method has led to significant conversation regarding water use, and its preclusion from reuse in the greater water cycle. As droughts in states such as California have worsened, operators have taken note and embarked on extensive investment into water recycling programs in order to preserve our most valuable resource for future generations.

Waste water recycling is a relatively new process that primarily involves filtration and removal of additives and impurities borne from the production of oil and gas. It can involve processes that use membranes or osmosis technology to filter and remove the impurities, restoring the water to a near natural condition. This allows operators to reuse water instead of new, fresh water for operations. It is an innovative solution that allows operators to contribute to a better environment, while saving money on water purchases. Additionally, it helps the public by reducing the amount of new water required for future oil and gas wells. Again, it is a relatively new process, and much of the technology is currently proprietary, but some operators are using this technology to help inform the public about how they are willing to work with and protect concerned communities. This has become more prevalent in large producing states like Texas, which has seen a rapid growth in recycling permits, development, and use.

In Colorado, one operator on the western slope has made water recycling a priority in its development operations. Their goal is to eliminate the need altogether for new water consumption, by recycling, and reusing as much water as possible for current and future operations. They have developed a central wastewater processing plant which collects all the produced and flowback water from each fractured well they develop, process out the waste, and reuse the filtered water for their next development project. While not a perfect system, and not available for all locations and formations, this illustrates the next wave of available technology. Operators will be using this new technology to further address concerns expressed by citizens, and to solidify their social license to operate for years to come. Limitations on the use of the technology include limited infrastructure to transport the wastewater to recycling plants and the availability and capacity of recycling units, which have not yet permeated all development fields in the United States.


As energy needs both domestically and globally continue to expand at record breaking levels, it is important for natural resource development operators to be mindful of the environment concerns of the communities they operate in. As the saying goes, “water is the lifeblood” of where we eat, live, and recreate. It is important that we take all steps available to be good stewards of all natural resources, while continuing to provide the affordable energy that has allowed us the thrive as a nation. By responsibly using the water available and investing in new technologies, oil and gas operators have contributed to the overall health and welfare of citizens, while continuing to be respectful of the natural habitat that surrounds us.

The featured image is of a natural gas well near Parachute, Colorado.  The image is part of the public domain.


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