Yet more adverse side effects of fracking have been identified, as new research indicates that it could threaten water supplies in drought-prone areas.
Fracking is a controversial method of extracting gas reserves from underground seams, using high pressure water jets which are injected into the ground to fracture shale rocks and release the natural gas inside.
Since 2011, up to 75 per cent of the 40,000 fracking wells in the U.S. have been drilled in places that are very dry and already subject to regular droughts, spanning an area from Texas to California; in those regions, fracking wells require the use of up to 97 billion gallons of water , a fact that must cause grave concern when water is already scarce. A report by the Ceres investor network identified that 55 per cent of the areas hosting fracking operations were already experiencing drought conditions, and competition for water by other heavy water-users, such as high-population areas and farming, was already fierce.
"Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country's most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions," said Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres green investors' network.
Half of the total water consumption was used in Texas, one of the driest areas where severe droughts have been common for many years, yet, despite this environmental consideration, there are plans to double existing fracking operations in the state over the next five years. Rural communities such as Eagle Ford, a small outpost near the center of the Texas oil and gas fracking initiatives, have already been affected by the impact, and this effect can only worsen as the process is developed further:
"Shale producers are having significant impacts at the county level, especially in smaller rural counties with limited water infrastructure capacity," the Ceres report said. "With water use requirements for shale producers in the Eagle Ford already high and expected to double in the coming 10 years, these rural counties can expect severe water stress challenges in the years ahead."
At Eagle Ford, a drop of 300ft has been noted in surrounding aquifer levels, the underground layers of water-bearing rock from which groundwater can be extracted via water wells. According to the Texas commission on environmental quality, water supplies in some very small communities have already been exhausted, and twenty-nine others could run out within the next three months.
In areas where persistent droughts already compromise water supplies, fracking is exacerbating the situation into dangerous territory, with a large proportion of Texan reservoirs operating on just a twenty-five per cent capacity. There have been calls to impose water restrictions before the circumstances worsen, and for the long-term effects of fracking in these already challenged areas to be reviewed.
"It's a wake-up call," said Prof James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine. "We understand as a country that we need more energy but it is time to have a conversation about what impacts there are, and do our best to try to minimise any damage."
In other areas, the position is equally bleak. In California, 96% of the region's fracking wells are sited in areas where water is already very scarce, despite a serious drought emergency being declared across the state. Governor Jerry Brown made a proclamation to declare a drought emergency where residents were in "extreme peril" in the hope of some federal assistance.
" I'm declaring a drought emergency in the state of California because we're facing perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept 100 years ago," he said.
Across the whole of the western and central United States, droughts are currently a serious issue and officials have designated 11 states as primary natural disaster zones, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California, yet fracking is widespread across these areas. In Colorado, 97% of the fracking wells are sited in areas of low water availability, yet the water demand from fracking is likely to increase to 6 billion gallons across the state by 2015, more than twice the average yearly consumption of Boulder city. Similar situations exist in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Ceres report explains how some areas have begun a water recycling initiative, but that this was unlikely to increase supplies sufficiently to offset the massive quantities used by fracking.
Fracking has also been linked to higher than average levels of radiation, a higher incidence of earthquakes, and polluted water supplies due to the large amounts of dangerous chemicals contained in the pressurised water jets. There are also other environmental concerns, including the increased need for haulage created by the process, which typically utilises up to four hundred tanker trucks per site.
This is certainly an emotive subject and a very controversial method of obtaining energy, but do the risks outweigh the potential benefits? Have you been affected by any of the negative side effects of fracking in your area? Subscribers' opinions are always valued and welcomed - if you are not already a subscriber, join this unique community today!