One of the criticisms of hydraulic fracturing is that it uses large volumes of water. But how much is large? That’s not easy question to answer.
Firstly, the volumes are expressed variously in imperial and US gallons, cubic metres and litres. Sometimes the figure is quoted is per frack job, sometimes per well or pad of several wells, and sometimes per decade. It is rarely made clear whether the figure is total use or the amount of water that is not recycled.
Then it depends on who you talk to. Dangers of Fracking, an American anti-fracking website, estimates 8 million gallons (30,280 m3) per frack and assumes a well can be fracked 18 times. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Research estimated 9,000-29,000 m3 for the entire fractural operation for a single well. Cuadrilla said it used 8,400 cubic metres for each fracture at Preese Hall, the only fracking so far attempted in the UK. The Policy Exchange, a UK-based think tank, supported by the political right, estimates 5 million US gallons (19,000 m3) for a well for a decade but without specifying how many fracks.
How much is too much?
The Policy Exchange tries to put the figures in context by claiming that the water needed to frack a well for a decade is the equivalent to that needed to water a golf course for a month. It doesn’t, however, say how big the golf course is, or where it is or how it is managed. More helpfully and accurately, Policy Exchange says the volume is the equivalent to that lost in leaks every hour by United Utilities, the water company serving the north west of England.
Does it matter?
The Government is confident water use will not hold back fracking in the UK. It said in its response to an inquiry by the 2011 Energy and Climate Change Committee that “adverse effects on water resources as a result of possible expansion of the shale gas industry in the UK are not expected.”
The Tyndall Centre concluded in a report into the potential environmental impacts of fracking that the volume of water needed might not be significant at a national level. It said: “Development of shale reserves at levels sufficient to deliver gas at a level equivalent to 10% of UK gas consumption would increase industrial water abstraction across England and Wales by up to 0.6%”.
However, fracking may run into regional water problems. Cuadrilla, for example, has potential sites near Blackpool in the River Wyre catchment, which the Environment Agency identified as either ‘over licenced’, ‘over abstracted’ or ‘no water available’.
The problems could be even worse in areas, such as the Weald in south east England, which has regularly suffered from drought. The Chartered Institute of Water & Environmental Management said fracking “must not be allowed to conflict with water use for public water supply or that needed to maintain a healthy environment.” It says climate change is predicted to mean less water will be available in future and it questions whether this level of water use is appropriate in the long term to source energy.
Licence or buy-in
Any operator will need a licence from the Environment Agency to abstract water from rivers or boreholes. The Agency has said it will not licence unsustainable abstraction. Fracking companies could, alternatively, buy in water and transport it by tanker but that is more expensive and lorry movements will be controlled by planning permissions. The water companies have already said they will offer operators a discount if they are using large volumes of water. But Matt Georges, of the Environment Agency, said water companies had to balance what had been taken, what was needed and what was left. “There is not much left in some parts of the country,” he said.
Fracking operators may find their biggest problem with water use comes from an unexpected group. The Angling Trust, which represents anglers in England, came out against fracking last month. It said it was seeking assurances from the government that fracking would not be permitted unless sustainable supplies of water were developed, to avoid taking water from already-depleted rivers and ground waters. The organisation’s chief executive, Mark Lloyd, said “We are gravely concerned about any further pressure on already threatened water resources at a time when many rivers run dry in the summer.” He said solicitors were ready to fight for compensation for any of member clubs and fisheries that might be affected.