What “Energy Dominance” Means for Water

By Genora Givens

March 26, 2019

In my time as a student and practitioner of environmental management, I have generally chosen to steer clear of energy and oil and gas conversations. My hesitation to dive deeply into the world of oil and gas stemmed partially from a being engrossed in the water resource world. Often when the fossil fuel industry is discussed it is in the context of atmospheric carbon and climate change, topics that did not pique the interest of my water-centric mind.

So when I learned that for my fellowship I would be conducting a research project with Clean Water Action’s Oil and Gas Team, I was unsure what kind of information I would find and how it would connect to water resource management. My task was to determine the water impacts of current U.S. oil and gas production and, considering the Drumpf Administration’s call for “energy dominance”, what the water impacts of the industry could be in 2050.

As it turns out, oil and gas production has huge impacts on water and exposes major gaps in our ability to regulate the industry and protect drinking water.

Water Usage: Currently over 40 billion barrels of water is withdrawn per year to facilitate oil and gas production in the U.S. This is enough to supply New York City’s 9 million residents with drinking water for nearly 5 years. Most oil and gas production is occurring in the water-scarce west and southwest, most notably Texas, putting an additional strain on already limited water resources.

Wastewater Production: Oil and gas production generates a lot of wastewater, over 30 billion barrels per year.  This includes produced water, which is water from underground formations that is brought to the surface due to the production process, and flowback, which is water that is injected for enhanced oil recovery or hydraulic fracturing and returns to the surface. The wastewater is often very saline and contains a number of chemicals used to enhance the production process, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

Wastewater Disposal: Managing wastewater is a growing area of concern in the oil and gas industry. Nearly 90% of the wastewater generated is injected underground, either for disposal or for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a technique used to lengthen the production life of old oil wells. Injection can pose a threat to underground drinking water sources. Hazardous chemicals can contaminate groundwater through geological pathways, improper well construction, or injection directly into aquifers.

Exacerbating the negative effects that oil and gas production has on water resources is the fact that information on water use and impacts is hard to find and that the oil and gas industry is notoriously difficult to regulate. Each state tracks water usage and wastewater production information differently or not at all. The proprietary nature of the chemical cocktails used by companies for EOR and hydraulic fracturing makes it difficult for municipal treatment facilities to properly treat oil and gas wastewater. The Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) designed to protect underground drinking water sources, is routinely undermined by aquifer exemptions.  

The current Administration’s push for increased oil and gas production and decreased environmental regulation will ensure that the deleterious impacts of the industry on water will only grow. This research experience helped me to more thoroughly understand the interconnection of seemingly disparate environmental issues and has encouraged me to pay more attention to the water/energy nexus. As we fight for a clean energy future, we must remember that we are not only fighting against climate change and all that it entails, but also struggling to protect our most important resource – clean water.

End notes:

(1) According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, New Yorkers consume about 1 billion gallons, or 23 million barrels, of water per day.

(2) This number was calculated using current oil and gas production data and produced water to oil and produced water to gas ratios, 9.2 barrels of water/barrel of oil and 97 barrels of water/million cubic feet of gas, respectively.

  • U.S. Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Outlook 2018 with Projections to 2050. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 2018.
  • Veil, John. US Produced water volumes and management practices in 2012. Oklahoma City: Groundwater Protection Council, 2015.

About Genora Givens

Genora Givens graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with a Master of Environmental Management degree in May 2018. Her studies focused on flood risk and stormwater management in the urban context. Genora’s Environmental Fellows Program summer placement was with the Clean Water Action on the National Oil and Gas Team in Washington, DC. She is most interested in developing ways to incorporate understandings of social vulnerability and inequity into analysis of geographic risk and watershed management and planning.