Billions of Gallons Used to Frack “Monster Wells,” Even in Drought Areas

Washington, D.C. – The oil and gas industry insists that hydraulic fracturing of natural gas and oil wells does not threaten America’s water supplies. But a new report by Environmental Working Group finds that hundreds of “monster wells” across the country were fracked with 10 to 25 million gallons of water each – and many that used the most water were in drought-stricken areas.

The report, titled Monster Wells, found that between April 2010 and December 2013, a total of more than 3.3 billion gallons of water were used to drill 261 such wells, with the greatest number in Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado. About two-thirds were drilled in areas suffering from drought, depleting scarce freshwater resources and threatening to pollute groundwater.

“The amount of water used in these wells is staggering,” said Bill Walker, coauthor of the report and EWG consultant. “The water used to frack a single monster well could meet the water needs of a drought-stricken county in Texas twice over.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the average amount of water used to frack a well is 50,000 to 5 million gallons. But EWG’s analysis found that is hardly the upper limit.

The industry typically downplays the amount of water used, the resource depletion it causes in drought areas and the risk of polluting groundwater. Since drilling companies often are not required to reporting their water use, there are likely an unknown number of other undisclosed monster wells across the country.

“It’s time we give towns, cities and counties the right to make decisions about how their resources are used, especially in drought areas,” Soren Rundquist, EWG’s landscape and remote sensing analyst, who coauthored the report, said. “That means the industry must be required to report – for every well – how much water was used, the source of the water and how it was disposed of.”

The impact on water supplies does not end once a well is fracked. When millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand are injected into underground rock formations to free trapped gas or oil, huge quantities of contaminated water come back up. Because of the high costs and technological challenges of treating this water, most of it is re-injected into deep disposal wells, which can leak and pollute groundwater.

The report recommends:

  • State or local authorities should require oil and gas companies to obtain water use permits for each well they drill. Applications for permits should disclose not only the amount of water to be used but its source and type and how it will be recycled or disposed of.
  • State and local authorities should have authority to deny or limit permits for wells they judge to require excessive amounts of water.
  • In times of officially declared drought, oil and gas drilling operations should be subject to the same kind of water use restrictions imposed on citizens, farmers, communities, recreational activities and other industries. Ensuring access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water should always be the top priority.
  • To improve reporting and tracking of water use, the industry-operated FracFocus website must be replaced with an independent database, overseen by the EPA and modeled on its Toxics Release Inventory.

The full report, which includes the location and other data for every monster well, can be found here