Cities across Texas are experiencing water shortages partly because oil and gas companies are increasing the use of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Fracking works by injecting pressurized water underground so that fissures are created from which oil and gas can be extracted. In Texas alone, 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year. While gas companies could configure fracking to be more sustainable, fracking still only accounts for about 1-2% of a state's overall use of water. It is misguided to hold gas companies responsible for these shortages.
Natural gas production via fracking has increased by 30% since 2005, and has actually helped reduce electricity prices in parts of the country. However, the process does require large amounts of water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nationwide, fracking wells use between 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year.
Moreover, only 20-25% of the water used for fracking is recovered while the rest is lost underground. What's more troubling is that a recent report by Ceres, an environmentally-focused non-profit, found that 47% of oil and gas wells are located in areas already prone to drought.
But this doesn't mean fracking is inherently unsustainable. As an alternative to drinking water, oil and gas companies could use recycled water, wastewater, saltwater, or even liquid propane. In Pennsylvania, recycled water is already used in 40% of the wells despite its increased expense. This would resolve conflicts with communities over drinking water shortages.
Although 15 million Texans are subject to water rationing during which they can't refill pools or water lawns, this is not solely the fault of oil and gas companies. In states like Texas, years of water overuse by ranchers, cotton farmers, and fast-growing urban centers are more to blame for water scarcity. In fact, over three trillion gallons of water are spent each year nationwide on landscape irrigation activities like watering lawns and gardens.
Oil and gas companies should certainly switch to other liquids for fracking, but cities across the country should also adopt sustainable water practices. This includes promoting water conservation efforts and drought-proof crops. It also means encouraging responsible urban development that avoids needless sprawl. Finally, climate change must be controlled to minimize the impact of future droughts.