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Fracking away the water: Report warns of dwindling supply due to ND oil industry

By Bryan Horwath / Dickinson Tribune

A scathing report issued Thursday by the Western Organization of Resource Councils says water used in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is reaching a crisis point in Western states.

The regional network of organizations’ 37-page report, titled “Gone for Good,” warns of continued diminished water supplies in areas that have been hit hard by drought in recent years. The report also states that the data currently available and processes used to track energy industry water used for fracking are not sufficient, and that the “current level of water use for oil and gas production simply cannot be sustained.”

The report claims that nearly 87 billion to 174 billion gallons of water were used for fracking purposes in the U.S. last year. Fracking is the process of extracting oil and gas from underground formations using pressurized fluids, sand and chemicals.

“With this study, we hope to call attention to a very serious problem growing in our dry Western states,” said Robert LeResche, WORC spokesman and Powder River Basin Resource Council vice chair, during a teleconference Thursday. “The oil and gas production methods that are resurrecting our oil and gas industry have a very dark side. Those methods are threatening to suck us dry of our limited water resources in the West.”

The report states that although there has been a lot of concern voiced about environmental issues tied to fracking, the problem of water conservation in the face of continued fracking in states such as North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, among others, has largely been ignored.

“There has been a lot of talk about pollution, but, in the long run, (water shortages) could be a more serious threat,” LeResche said. “Unless our states take real action soon, we stand to watch our agricultural economies, and even our human habitation of some places, disappear. Ninety-nine percent of rural Americans rely on groundwater for their domestic needs, as do 51 percent of all Americans.”

Citing numbers from the report, LeResche said newer exploration practices — such as horizontal drilling — can use as much as 40 percent more water than older and more traditional methods. He added that water left over from fracking — often deposited into deep injection disposal wells — is not returned into the natural cycle, thereby effectively lessening aquifer supplies for everyone.

LeResche said areas in the American West could soon face clean and dependable water shortages much more commonly seen in poorer nations.

“The Missouri River is the major source of drinking water for me, my family and for most of our tribal members on Fort Berthold,” said Dakota Resource Council Board member and Three Affiliate Tribes member Theodora Bird Bear. “Groundwater is a limited source of water in our dry, arid western North Dakota counties. The oil industry is looking for a source of frack water and, by many accounts, is just getting started here in the Bakken. Because there has never really been any planning in the Bakken, no state or federal or tribal agency has been monitoring or measuring the loss of potable water from oil and gas development in our state.”

Each frack job uses anywhere from 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Highlighted in a story published by The Dickinson Press on Thursday, issues have been raised surrounding the state’s use of the website FracFocus — which serves as an information chest pertaining to aspects of the fracking process — according to a report from Harvard Law School.

The WORC report also was critical of FracFocus, stating that “the industry, not the states, provide the information to FracFocus” and called the site unreliable.

Ritter said that essentially dooming post-fracking process water is not an optimum situation and added that the state is working with companies to come up with new ways to be able to recycle frack water.

“It’s something that we’re continually working on,” Ritter said. “Nobody wants to see water banished to disposal wells forever, but 50 percent of the water used for hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota is now recycled. We would never say for people to not be concerned about water supplies, but water consumption is closely monitored by the State Water Commission.”

North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Tessa Sandstrom said Thursday that energy giant Halliburton is “at the forefront of developing technologies to reduce water consumption” and added that shale well consumption accounts for 0.3 percent of the total freshwater used in the U.S. in 2011. Sandstrom said that number is compared to 0.5 percent of all freshwater in the same year used by golf courses.

The WORC report calls for more planning and closer monitoring of fracking-related practices and water consumption, adding that the “oil and gas industry brags that (recycling frack water) can be done, but the public interest would be served if states make the industry walk the talk and require that it be done.”

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