Can Oil and Water Mix?

Oil drilling in some parts of Texas is replacing ranching, as ranchers, farmers,  city and industrial water users vie with a growing oil shale fracking  industry for access to water, an increasingly scare resource.  One rancher compared the economic value of water used for irrigation with the same amount used for shale ‘fracking’ – a relatively new process the flushes high-pressured water deep within the earth to  unleash oil and natural gas found (and stuck!) in underground rock formations.

…it takes 407 million gallons to irrigate 640 acres and grow about $200,000 worth of corn on the arid land. The same amount of water, he says, could be used to frack enough wells to generate $2.5 billion worth of oil. “No water, no frack, no wealth,” says Mr. Brownlow, who has leased his cattle ranch for oil exploration.

It took only three years for one oil field to support 12,000 jobs and account for 6% of South Texas economic output.  Those are a lot of jobs, and in fact, are a big component of Governor Perry’s claim to have created one million jobs during his administration.

Texas and other states are experiencing mini-oil booms.  Once considered much too expensive to support a commercial extraction industry, with oil hovering between $80-100, fracking has become economically feasible.  In fact, experts predict there is enough oil to be ‘fracked’ to help reduce US dependence on outside sources.

I worked on water issues and water rights in California during most of the ’90s when the water wars between farmers and cities were waging.   The dynamics prevailed:  farmers selling water rights to supply growing cities and water tables that needed to be replenished.  New technologies to recyle and reuse water abounded.

It seems the shale extraction industry is already working on ways to recycle the water it uses or to use non-potable and highly saline water for their processes.

The oil industry has long believed that its thirst for water could cause problems. The American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based industry trade association, warned against using fresh water for fracking in its 2010 best-practices advice. In an email, the institute said the industry should consider nonpotable water “whenever practicable,” but decisions must be made on a “case-by-case basis.”

Some companies are taking steps to use less potable water. Corp. says it is exploring whether it could extract water from a deep, salty aquifer unfit for people or crops. Corp. has begun recycling a small percentage of the water it uses for fracking

The key problem will be who doesn’t get the water that the shale industry uses.  People all over Texas, including farmers and ranchers, are selling rights to the minerals underneath their property to shale companies.  My cousins in Forte Worth sold the rights to minerals under their suburban home two years ago.

While it looks attractive to farm the upper layers of soil and ‘moonlight’ by selling mineral rights, that does not always solve the problem.  Some farmers sell their land for water wells to feed the fracking as well.   Some accuse the oil industry of poaching off municipal water aquifers and drawing down water tables throughout a watershed area.

Ranchers and the oil industry fought fiercely in the original oil boom.  That was mainly on how to use the land.  Those fights were popularized with “Dallas”, “Giant” and other era classics.

But the competition for water usage may become an even larger conflict with shale fracking than the proliferation of oil rigs on former ranch land was in the ’40s and 50s.

So far, however, it seems that nobody wants the fracking industry to leave Texas.  All seem to want to figure out how to use water efficiently and with the least harm to the key water resources themselves.

(Much of this information is from the , which charges for access.)




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