West Texas’s energy sector is booming again, thanks largely to advancements in hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The Permian Basin, which by several accounts is the world’s second-largest oil field, still has plenty of oil and gas lying beneath its surface. Much of it still untapped because for decades, it has been difficult to extract. In recent years, however, fracking has made those deposits easier to harvest. And as explained recently in the Houston Chronicle, compared to other shale oil fields, that energy is relatively cost-effective to extract, even during this stubborn three-year spell of low fuel prices.
Extracting that oil, on one hand, sounds like a great way to revitalize many economically struggling communities. As a result, established companies and startups alike seek to build pipelines that would transport fuel and water alike across long distances in order to tap into these resources.
But companies leading this effort, including the Dan A. Hughes Company, are running into opposition by more and more citizens, ranchers, farmers and environmentalists – all of whom share a bevy of worries, from the lack of water for cattle and crops to potential threats that could be inflicted on popular recreation areas such as Balmorhea State Park. They cite concerns over water scarcity, as estimates have suggested the amount of water harvested to support the West Texas fracking boom has surged from 5 billion gallons in 2011 to almost 30 billion gallons last year – and that amount could double by the end of this year and more than triple by the end of this decade. Ranchers and farmers fear that the Permian Basin’s aquifers, most of which are believed to be interconnected, could all dry up as that water is diverted elsewhere – leaving ranches, farms and communities dry.
Is there a path towards preserving the long-term sustainability of the West Texas landscape while allowing for growth in the region’s energy sector?
According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), there very well could be a solution.
EDF has noted that across all of Texas, 1 percent of the state’s freshwater supplies is used for fracturing. But in more arid regions such as those in West Texas, as much as 90 percent of local freshwater is diverted for gas and oil extraction.
The answer would be to reuse the brackish water that is the byproduct of fracking operations. Adopting such a practice could help reduce the strain on local freshwater sources. EDF, however, says it could be done with one caveat: that such water stays within an oil and gas fracking operation. As of now, any science that would allow this water to be retreated for other purposes such as agriculture does not yet exist. The solution is not a perfect one, and EDF insists that while in-field recycling is the most economically and environmentally viable option, more research needs to be done before considering this spent water for other uses.
This question is not solely limited to Texas: EDF suggests that nationwide, oil and gas companies generate 800 billion gallons of brackish, toxic and unusable wastewater annually. Developing new ways to recycle water would not only accelerate job growth, but help Texas and other water-stressed states cope with the stubborn water-energy nexus that highlights the need for grooming a modern economy that not only is low-carbon, but also low-water.
Image credit: Paul Lowry/Flickr