Thursday, October 10, 2013

The True Cost of American Energy Independence

Recently, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its estimate showing that the United States (in blue) was set to be the world's largest producer of petroleum and natural gas in 2013, surpassing both Russian and Saudi Arabia as shown on this graphic:

Since 2008, United States petroleum production has increased by 7 quadrillion BTU, mainly due to dramatic production increases in both Texas and North Dakota as shown here:

Note that oil production in Texas nearly doubled over the three year period and oil production in North Dakota nearly tripled over the same period from 2010 to 2013.

Since 2008, natural gas production in the U.S. has increased by 3 quadrillion BTU over the same period with much of this growth attributable to increased output from the northeastern United States as shown here:

Natural gas output in West Virginia rose by 51 percent between July 2012 and July 2013 and output of dry gas in southern Pennsylvania rose by 100 percent over the same period.

By way of comparison, both Russia and Saudi Arabia increased their combined petroleum and natural gas production levels by about 1 quadrillion BTU over the same five year period.

Thank you fracking.

Coincidentally, Environment America released a report "Fracking by the Numbers" the same week as the EIA touted America's new position at the top of the world's hydrocarbon producers heap.

Let's start by looking at a map showing the shale gas basins in North America:

Nearly half of all states and five Canadian provinces have shale basins within their boundaries that are capable of producing oil and or natural gas using fracking.

Now, let's look at a nice simple schematic from the Environmental Protection Agency showing how fracking operations use water:

Here is a chart showing the number of wells fracked in the United States since 2005 and during 2012:

In total, at least 22,326 wells were fracked in the U.S. during 2012 with the majority of those being found in Texas.

Each well that is fracked requires at between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons of water (or more) to complete the fracking process with the volume depending on the depth of the well, the length of the horizontal portion of the well and the size/volume of the frac required to stimulate production.  Since the production level of hydrocarbons from fracked wells tends to decline quickly, in an attempt to restimulate production, many wells require additional fracking at some point in time, involving the use of even more water.   

Here is a chart showing the total water used for fracking in the United States since 2005 in billions of gallons:

Nationwide, it is estimated that 250 billion gallons of water has been used in fracking operations since 2005.

To put the volume of water used into perspective, the volume of water used for fracking in Colorado was sufficient to supply the needs of nearly 200,000 Denver households for one year.  The use of water for oilfield fracking operations is becoming a major problem in some of the nation's more arid states; for example, fracking in the Barnett Shale region of Texas during 2010 consumed a volume of water equivalent to 8 percent of Dallas' annual water consumption.  The Texas Water Development Board estimates that one county in the Eagle Ford Shale region will consume 40 percent of the total water consumed by 2020.  Years of low rainfall in some areas have compounded the problem with municipalities and farmers both competing for the same scarce water resources.  According to a study by Ceres, 47 percent of wells fracked between January 2011 and September 2012 were located in areas that had "high or extremely high water stress"(in dark red brown) as shown on this map (please click on the link here to get the interactive version):

After wells are fracked, there is a flowback period during which the wells flow substantial volumes of frac fluid containing chemical compounds used in the fracking process.  Some of this water is recycled and used to frac other wells but some is considered waste.   As well, once the well begins to produce hydrocarbons, additional "produced water", often highly saline, also flows to the surface along with the gas or oil.  In both cases, this toxic water must be disposed of in an environmentally conscientious manner.  Unfortunately for the environment, huge volumes of water require disposal as shown here:

In 2012 alone, it is estimated that at least 280 billion gallons of wastewater was produced from fracking operations.  In some cases, this water is re-injected into the subsurface.  The injection of huge volumes of fracking wastewater is causing another problem; a surge in the number of earthquakes.  Earthquakes that have been triggered by injection wells have occurred in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Colorado.  Most of these earthquakes are relatively small, however, a magnitude 5.7 quake in Oklahoma in 2011 destroyed 14 homes and damaged highways.

Some experts have predicted that the number of fracked wells drilled in the United States will eventually account for 45 percent of the natural gas produced domestically by 2035, up from 14 percent in 2009 as shown here:

While energy independence is important, it should not come at any cost.  We are only in the initial stages of the development of shale-based hydrocarbon exploitation.  The true long-term cost of this independence is a great unknown and the cost will only get higher as exploitation of this resource ramps up.


  1. Your charts for water usage versus wastewater seem to have a bust. 250b gallons of source water over 8 years doesn't pencil out to 280b of wastewater in one year.

    1. Source water and water used in fracking are not necessarily the same thing. That's why the numbers don't match.

    2. Maybe. But the 250b of source water over 8 years works out to roughly 30b per year. And the 280b of wastewater in one year is almost ten times that amount. Implies there an awful lot of saltwater flowback being extracted from those deep strata. Or, as Anonymous alluded in 2013, there's something wrong with the numbers.

  2. Many people have underestimated how much this has acted as a tailwind to a rather flat economy. How long this will help drive us forward is questionable. One thing that cannot be debated is how we are wasting much of this precious gift, see below.

  3. Why not just frac with Propane instead of water? It produces more oil & gas from each well anyway. Check out GASFRAC at