How Thirsty is Shale Gas?
- Vikram Rao (Research Triangle Energy Consortium)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- July 2014
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 20 - 21
- 2014. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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Beyond the Headlines
Editor’s note: Professionals in the oil and gas industry often receive questions about how industry operations affect public health, the environment, and the communities in which they operate. Of particular concern today is the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment. In this new column, JPT is inviting energy experts to put those questions and concerns about industry operations into perspective. Additional information about the oil and gas industry, how it affects society, and how to explain industry operations and practices to the general public is available on SPE’s Energy4me website at www.energy4me. org.
The New York Times reported on 15 May 2014 that Butte County in California banned hydraulic fracturing because of concerns regarding freshwater consumption in a drought year. Shale oil and gas opponents have seized this issue even in parts of the country not suffering any significant drought. The perception of being deprived of drinking water has strong imagery. The facts beyond the headlines are decidedly not so dire.
A single shale oil or gas well will use between 3 and 5 million gal of water for drilling and completion operations. This sounds like a lot and, in some sense, it is a lot. But then you realize that the average golf course uses that much every 25 days, about the length of time it takes to drill a single well and start producing from it. It is also the amount of water that New York City uses every 4 minutes! Not a fair comparison, you say. Well, why don’t we compare it against other forms of energy?
Such comparisons are best made on the basis of liters of water per megawatt hour of energy. Shale gas production uses about 38 liters. In comparison, corn ethanol on average uses 32,000 to 370,000 liters (the higher end of the range is for irrigated corn), and the real shocker is soybean diesel, which comes in at 180,000 to 960,000 liters. In other words, corn ethanol uses more than 1,000 times more water per unit of energy compared with shale gas. Other sources suggest an even greater disparity in water usage (Science 2009).
Conventional fracturing fluid uses freshwater as the base fluid. Fresh is defined as 500 parts per million (ppm) or less of dissolved solids. The fluid returning to the surface after use, known as flowback water, is always saltier than what went in. Salinities of 200,000 ppm are not uncommon. As a frame of reference, seawater runs about 35,000 ppm. Recent advances in fracturing fluid chemistry allow for such flowback water to be reused without removing the salt down to fresh standards. Currently in the Marcellus shale play, some companies are reusing almost all of their flowback water with minimal treatment.
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