Supporters of fracking would like us to believe that the levels of water usage are minimal. Here is a typical example of the misleading “reassuring” statements made about it.
The Global Warming Policy Foundation (which is chaired by Lord Lawson, a former chancellor of the exchequer) told us
The shale gas industry uses water: 1-5 million gallons per well. However, its needs are not great in comparison with those of other industries, such as the power generation industry, or even the quantity used in domestic appliances…. A single shale gas well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three weeks.
That sounds authoritative and convincing doesn’t it? And with a former Chancellor at the helm we can be sure those numbers stand up can’t we? [FYI 1-5 million gallons is 4-19,000 m3]
So how much water does a well actually use? Shall we use the numbers provided by Cuadrilla?
In the UK, Cuadrilla Resources is the only operator to have conducted drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It has disclosed the identities of chemicals and the volume of water required (Table 2.4). This suggests water use slightly lower than the lowest value in the range described above for the US at around 8,400m3 per well.
So that’s 8,400 m3 for Cuadrilla compared to GWPF’s esimate of between 4,000 and 19,000 m3 per well. So far so good. We seem to be in the right ball park don’t we?
So now let’s look at the reassuring information that “A single shale gas well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three weeks.”
Well, to make sense of that we have to find out how much water a golf course uses. Shall we take Royal Lytham as a reasonable example? It is within Cuadrilla’s PEDL 165 and as it hosted the British Open Championship in 2012 it would be reasonable to assume that it is irrigated to maintain the highest quality of turf. According to the R&A water usage averages “about 5,000 cubic metres per annum” (P23)
So using 5,000 m3 per annum would give us a figure of 288 M3 every three weeks.
It would seem that Mr Lawson wants us to believe that 8,400 is equal to 288! Was this man really in charge of the economy for 6 years? Oh dear!
But hang on – it gets worse. Nick Grealy, a voluble advocate of shale gas, who has been paid by Cuadrilla, states on his website that “The 18,000 cubic metres of water needed for drilling a well with a life span of up to ten years is equal to the volume used to irrigate a 3 hectare corn field in one season or an 18 hole golf course in one month”, so at 18,000 cubic metres we are really looking at the top end of that 5 million gallon figure. (And yes he’s repeating the golf course thing isn’t he?)
So, let’s rephrase the comparison more accurately shall we?
“A single shale gas well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three weeks.”
“A single shale gas well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three and a half years.”
The maths is out by a factor of over 60!
In reality water usage is probably a less concerning aspects of fracking than the pollution and health impacts, although it should be pointed out that the water used in fracking is lost to the eco-system unless expensive and as yet unproven techniques are use to remove the carcinogenic and radioactive elements it picks up on its underground journey, whereas the water used at Royal Lytham can be safely returned to it without treatment.
What is perhaps most concerning is the apparent willingness of otherwise apparently respectable industry lobbyists to try to win over public opinion by making wildly inaccurate statements like the one we have just taken apart.