Last summer, the United States experienced the worst drought since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
At the same time, the country was experiencing one of the biggest onshore drilling booms in history, powered by one of the most water-intensive extraction technologies ever invented: hydraulic fracking.
The tension between these two realities could not be clearer.
This year, as the drilling industry drew millions of gallons of water per well in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, residents in these states struggled with severe droughts and some farmers opted to sell their water to the oil and gas industry rather than try to compete with them for limited resources.
Even the Atlantic coast’s mighty Susquehanna River faced record lows last year, leading regulators to suspend dozens of withdrawal permits – the majority of which were for fracking Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.
Researchers for the Federal Department of Energy saw problems like this coming, according to thousands of pages of documents about the topic provided to DeSmog, but their recommendations and warnings were consistently edited and downplayed and the final version of their report has yet to be released.
Stalled Report Cost Taxpayers $2 Million
“On multiple occasions, the editors asked for changes within the document because certain assertions would likely lead to rejection by OMB,” concluded the Civil Society Institute, which obtained the documents through Freedom of Information requests and provided them to DeSmog.
OMB stands for the Office of Management and Budget, the White House agency responsible for ensuring new reports and regulations are consistent with the current administration’s policies. The revisions to the Department of Energy report were made, the Civil Society Institute concluded in their internal assessment of the drafts, “regardless of whether or not the assertions were true, and regardless of whether or not OMB’s response would be ‘a fair critique.’”
An early draft of the Department of Energy’s “Energy Water Challenges” report warned of increasing competition between the energy industry and other sectors, but this language was cut from later versions. Input about water use and the energy industry from stakeholders nationwide was dropped. The problems highlighted in the report drafts have only intensified drilling has increased more recently.
The 2005 Energy Policy Act required the Department of Energy to provide Congress with a report on the connection between supply and demand for water and the energy industry, and to offer “recommendations for future actions.” It would be the first major federal effort in three decades to assess the nation’s current and expected water supply.
This first half of the report, which described how water and energy were being used at the time, was submitted to Congress in January 2007. The second half, however, which deals with future projected water supply issues, has hit a series of internal roadblocks. Its first draft was finished in 2007, but it was sent back to be re-written and the head author removed from the project. A 2011 draft still has yet to be revised or officially released, and those familiar with the process say that it is presently undergoing review by White House staff.
These delays have water planners and community advocates wondering what happened. “The short answer is that despite a $2 million investment by the public, the Department of Energy has failed to produce an Energy and Water Roadmap,” the Civil Society Institute wrote.
Water Shortages Coming
Early drafts of the DOE report show that there are growing serious concerns about water availability in the U.S. “Groundwater, though, is generally declining, with falling groundwater levels and historically low water levels in storage reservoirs,” the 2011 report, the most recent draft of the report available, states.
“The most easily accessible groundwater has already been tapped; accessing deeper groundwater requires more expensive wells and increased pumping costs,” it adds.
The 2007 draft of the report acknowledged these issues and predicted that these shortages could have repercussions for the nation’s energy sector.
“As future societal demands for both energy and water continue to increase,” it said, “there will be increasing competition for limited fresh-water supplies for the domestic, agricultural, industrial, and environmental sectors. This increased competition for water could negatively impact future energy development.”
The 2007 draft repeatedly emphasized the need for research to improve water efficiency and to develop ways that the energy industry can get by using less fresh water.
In the 2011 draft, the tone of urgency has largely been removed. It asserts that technology can provide solutions to the problems emerging, describing the potential solutions that as-yet-undeveloped technologies could theoretically provide. It also says that the challenges identified are “surmountable”. Mention of the need for further research has been scrubbed.
Keeping the Public Out
A striking omission from the 2011 version is the lack of stakeholder input, which can be invaluable for planning purposes and policy-making. The regional needs workshops concluded that “most regions of the country are facing … water-related issues, needs, and challenges,” which is left out of the January 2011 Draft.
One passage of the report originally read as follows:
“A surprising outcome from the workshops was the fact that most regions of the country, including those generally considered as water-rich areas including the Southeast, Midwest, and Northwest, are experiencing the same type of water issues and challenges associated with balancing competing demands for water often found in more water scarce regions of the county such as the Southwest.”
In the 2011 draft it was changed to read:
“On the national scale, precipitation (rain) and stream flow increased across most of the United States from 1940-1999. On the regional scale, with the exception of the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, that national trend was reflected in overall increases in surface water supply during the period.”
With these sorts of edits, important concerns were buried. But the problems predicted by the DOE researchers are already beginning to emerge.
“Time has already begun to validate many of the conclusions presented in the Report to Congress and the September 2007 Draft of the Roadmap,” the Institute wrote. “Conflicts between energy and water are increasing in number. State and local planners are ill-equipped to deal with such regional issues, and private industry takes up the slack only when its own interests are served.”
Oil, Gas – and Water
Some of the most interesting sections of the report relate to the oil and gas industry’s use of water for hydraulic fracturing.
Although the 2011 draft gave a head nod to fracking, it emphasized that oil and gas shale plays are “introducing new challenges as well as new opportunities for water re-use and recycling.”
“Shale gas development using hydraulic stimulation can require relatively large volumes of water,” the report says, “although in comparison to other water uses shale gas development currently consumes less than 1% of other uses in four major development areas.”
Of course, it is true that the volume of water used to frack oil and gas wells pales in comparison to some other uses. EPA estimates that 3 trillion gallons of water annually are used for landscape irrigation, which is at least 20 times the amount of water used for fracking every year.
But the difference between fracking and watering your lawn is that much of the water used for fracking permanently disappears from the water cycle, and is ultimately disposed in underground wastewater injection wells, while the water used in irrigation returns.
“It’s different than other traditional water withdrawals,” Sara Rollet Gosman, a National Wildlife Federation attorney, told Ohio’s Beacon Journal. “It is a 100 percent consumptive use. The water is basically pretty much lost and gone forever.”
The 2011 DOE report emphasizes the ability of the oil and gas industry to recycle its wastewater, saying “…the energy industry is expanding its use of nontraditional water, such as sea water, brackish water, and water produced during drilling for oil and natural gas,” without specifying what the industry’s starting point was or how large or small that growth has been.
What then do those numbers look like? The Wall Street Journal reported that 90% of the water used to frack Marcellus shale wells between 2005 and July 2013 was freshwater, adding that each of the 8,700 wells already drilled required between 4.2 and 5 million gallons of water and that just 10 percent of frack water was recovered and re-used.
Another DOE report, released in July, examined the potential impact of climate change on the energy industry, warning that domestic oil and gas production could be impacted by water shortages, and especially by droughts.
The 2007 draft says relatively little about shale gas or shale oil – both of which have boomed nationwide in more recent years – but it does deal with oil shales and other unconventional fossil fuel production, saying that research “is needed because of the fragile nature of the water resources in the arid regions of the U.S. where oil shale and coal resources are most significant.”
By 2011, the draft recognized the importance of the unconventional shale boom and its water requirements. “All of these technologies will require increased direct water supplies for fuel production,” it says about unconventional oil and gas. But the revised version loses any reference to the “fragile nature” of water supplies in arid regions, sapping the urgency of the 2007 draft.
Drafts and Re-Drafts under Obama
The DOE is not the only federal agency to face criticism for the way its draft reports change over time to reflect political agendas. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has come under fire repeatedly for watering down reports on fracking. In 2011, the New York Times reported a pattern whereby federal studies were used to justify loosening regulations for the oil and gas industry, describing revisions to the EPA’s ongoing national study of the shale boom on the nation’s drinking water supplies.
Propublica reported in July on the EPA’s retreat from its investigation in Pavillion, Wyoming, despite the agency’s conclusion in a draft of the report that water contamination was “the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field.” And last month, the L.A. Times reported that EPA had censored its findings in Dimock, Pennsylvania.
The stakes are high. Millions of people currently rely on the energy industry – both fossil fuels and renewables – to warm their homes, to drive manufacturing, to keep the lights on. Clean water is no less vital to our survival. The job of the Department of Energy is to provide decision-makers with research and analysis that is insulated from politics and deep-pocketed interests.
How much is our further reliance on fossil fuels compromising our water future? What are some of the hidden costs of not embracing renewables faster? These are sober and urgent questions that need to be answered with candor and rigor.
But if the recent Department of Energy report on water is any indication, these are not questions that the government has honestly and fully addressed.
Photo credit: Mobile plant in underground repair of oil wells by Shutterstock