Is The Oil Boom Worsening The Texas Drought?
[ASSURAS] South Texas is home to the country's second-largest-producing shale oil field, the Eagle Ford. Oil production there is skyrocketing from just 787 barrels in 2004 to more than 8 million so far this year. Like North Dakota, the oil boom is helping the local economy, but fracking all those wells takes millions of gallons of water, and Texas is suffering through an epic drought, one of the worst in the state's history.
Look at this map of the world's drought-stricken areas. The big patch of red -- that's Texas. Farmers are hurting, and in parts of the state, local governments are trying to limit the amount of water used in oil and gas drilling. I recently traveled to south Texas to get a firsthand look at the controversy.
Massive fires have ravaged neighborhoods. Dust storms have blackened the sky. And lakes are rapidly shrinking.
[MINISTER] We ask, Lord, for that abundance of rain.
[ASSURAS] Texans have literally been forced to their knees seeking relief.
[MAN] You bring that rain, we will rejoice in it.
[MARTIN WITTE] It's hurting, terribly.
[ASSURAS] For lifelong ranchers like 82-year-old Marvin Witte, the dry spell has meant having to sell off animals. He's down to about 80 head, half his normal herd. One of the reasons -- several of Witte's water wells are bone-dry.
[WITTE] That's devastating when you're without water on a farm, you know. Gosh, animals need water, people need water.
[ASSURAS] Witte blames the lack of rain, but he also suspects something else might be at play -- the oil boom. After all, he lives in Karnes County, Texas, in the very heart of the Eagle Ford shale. Oil production here has skyrocketed in just a few years thanks to hydraulic fracturing. It can take nearly six million gallons of water per well to pressure oil out of the shale. Fresh water. And while fracking only uses 1% of the water used in the region, much of it comes from the same sources nearby residents depend on, the underground aquifers feeding their private water wells.
[JOHN BRAUDAWAY] They are hydraulically fracking right now.
[ASSURAS] Here in Karnes County, veteran oil man John Braudaway showed us this hydraulic drilling operating in progress, one of 151 local wells that have been fracked.
[BRAUDAWAY] These are the fresh water pipes bringing in from a central place where they have a well and a real large reservoir.
[ASSURAS] Braudaway has been in the oil business here since the 1950s.
[BRAUDAWAY] Never in the past, on any of the oil booms, was water a factor. It is a big factor this time.
[ASSURAS] This is an historic drought by all accounts.
[ASSURAS] Bad news if oil companies are using all this water?
[BRAUDAWAY] It pulls the water table down. And with a drought and as much water as they're using, there will be problems in landowners' water wells.
[ASSURAS] Geologists say that could be what is happening at wells like Marvin Witte's.
[WITTE] We didn't have this problem prior to the commencement of the oil drilling.
[ASSURAS] They're taking a lot of water, these oil companies?
[WITTE] Yes, very much. You know, we can live without oil, but we can't live without water. We have to have water.
[ASSURAS] And that water itself has become a hot commodity. Some landowners are cashing in by selling it to the oil companies, which in turn are laying down new water pipelines as fast as possible.
[THOMAS MOY, JR.] We drill a lot of wells.
[ASSURAS] And water well drillers like Thomas Moy, Jr., are smiling big. Moy says his 70-year-old family business has shot up more than 40% in the last two years thanks to hydraulic fracturing.
This isn't only a oil boom. It's a water boom.
[MOY] It's a water boom.
[DAVID BLACKMON] Tanker trucks will come and fill themselves up with water, take it to the location, wherever the job is.
[ASSURAS] David Blackmon of El Paso Oil and Gas says the industry needs a lot of fresh water, storing it in reservoirs for ready use.
[BLACKMON] It certainly is an issue for this area because we're in a drought.
[ASSURAS] But Blackmon says the industry is unfairly blamed for using more than its fair share of water.
[BLACKMON] It's a lot of water, but when you put it in context, it's really very sustainable.
[ASSURAS] In fact, according to the Texas Water Development Board, water use for fracking is small compared to major users like farms or municipalities. But Alyssa Burgin, who runs the environmental group the Texas Drought Project, says the state can't behave as if fresh water will remain abundant.
What happens if there isn't rain over the next few years?
[BURGIN] Texas dries up and blows away. That is really not too absurd a thought.
[ASSURAS] State climatologists predict the current drought could last until 2020. At the same time as drilling increases, state officials predict the amount of water needed for hydraulic fracturing may increase 700% over the next decade.
[BURGIN] I believe hydraulic fracturing is a very big threat. Particularly as it expands.
[ASSURAS] But there are some potential solutions in the works.
Oh, that's kind of ugly. What is that?
[BRENT HALLDORSON] That's oil primarily, floating on top.
[ASSURAS] Brent Halldorson of recycling company Fountain Quail says that 20% of frack water comes back to the surface, and it can be treated and reused.
[HALLDORSON] We just go where the need is the highest, and right now, due to the drought, the need is very high right here, so we want to be here helping the industry succeed.
[ASSURAS] Fountain Quail is the first recycler to enter the Eagle Ford. So new, in fact, we were shown its $10 million system still in the testing stage.
[HALLDORSON] If we can make recycling part of the equation, bring more sustainability into the entire big picture, I think it's a win-win for all involved.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Tour the fract water recycling plant at energyNOW.com.
[ASSURAS] At this one facility, about 210,000 gallons of water a day are being recycled, a small fraction of the water consumed by fracking. But for Texans like Marvin Witte, every drop counts.
[WITTE] Water, water's everything, you know. Money and oil is good, but water is the best thing we have, to survive.
[ASSURAS] Of course, the best solution to the drought comes from the beautiful blue, but cloudless, skies above.
One solution that's emerging in the Eagle Ford -- oil and gas companies are drilling deeper wells for farmers if they share some of the water.
But there may be another solution -- water-free fracking. Canadian company GasFrac says it can fracture shale rock with a propane-based gel. When the oil or gas starts flowing, the company says the gel mixes right in, turns to a vapor, and returns to the surface and can later be recovered and reused. For now, GasFrac's propane gel is more expensive than water and isn't widely used for fracking.
Texas is home to America's second largest shale oil field, and business is booming - production has skyrocketed from under 1,000 barrels a day in 2004 to more than 8 million so far in 2011. But hydraulic fracturing in shale rock requires millions of gallons of water, a precious resource during one of the worst droughts in the state's history.
Anchor Thalia Assuras visits the Eagle Ford shale in Texas to see how rapidly expanding water use by energy companies is impacting the state.
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