Oil And Water: Fracking May “Need More Water Than We Have” In Colorado

Via The Denver Post, a revealing look at the water required for hydraulic fracking along Colorado’s Front Range:

Oil and gas drillers have bought at least 500 million gallons of water this year from cities for use in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” along Colorado’s Front Range.

Now they need more.

It’s the only way they’ll be able to sink thousands of new wells into the Niobrara formation that — if announcements last week by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. are correct — contains about 1 billion barrels of oil.

Each well drilled requires 1 million to 5 million gallons of water, and more when they are refracked.

Drillers “may need more water than we have,” said John McGee, water manager for the city of Loveland, which has leased municipal water.

In Fort Lupton, tanker trucks tap hydrants to fill up. It’s the same in Greeley, Frederick, Firestone and other communities amid the expanding oil fields north of Denver.

The trucks haul the water to rigs, where fracking crews mix it with sand and chemicals and pump it thousands of feet underground to release oil and gas.

But as companies propose new deals with utilities, including Aurora Water, they’re finding that a resource often scarce for people and agriculture may be limited for fracking too.

State natural resources planners say they’re working with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to calculate, within the next week or so, how much water may be available for oil and gas drilling.

For years, state officials have projected shortfalls of 600,000 to 1 million acre-feet of water needed to sustain Colorado’s population and agriculture.

Restrictions abound

Court-enforced compacts oblige Colorado to let some water flow down rivers to other states. Unlike water diverted from mountain rivers for use by cities and farms, much of the water pumped underground for fracking stays there.

And water diverted from mountain rivers on the Western Slope to Front Range cities legally must be used within specified service areas — preventing long-distance hauling to rigs.

“That is a concern,” said Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which delivers diverted water widely. District board members are discussing new rules to minimize legal exposure.

“It’s up to each municipality to see how much available water they have to sell,” said Sean Conway, a Weld County commissioner who helped launch a “Niobrara Working Group” to deal with water and other issues. “We must ensure that we don’t jeopardize our agricultural heritage.”

Drillers tapping town and city water for fracking “is going to further put pressure on Colorado,” Conway said. “We really need to be capturing that unallocated compact water that now is flowing out of the state.

“This area was called the Great American Desert for a reason,” he said. “Long term, we’re going to have to have serious discussions about new water storage.”

Tests seek to conserve

The big oil companies are experimenting with technologies that could help them frack with less water.

Some water from fracking in Colorado is reused.

“It is not a large number (of gallons) yet, but the potential is there,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.

In the meantime, Waskom said, energy companies may look to Colorado’s farm and ranch land.

“If this thing really gets underway, it’s going to require a good bit of water. We’ve got a finite quantity,” Waskom said. “Most of that quantity is in agriculture. Are you going to grow alfalfa? Or are you going to take a big paycheck from the energy companies? That’s the calculus that is going to come along.”

Industry analyst Pete Stark, vice president at consulting group IHS Inc., estimates that tapping the Niobrara would require four wells per square mile across 1,000 square miles. Over five years, using 2 million gallons per well — that works out to 1.6 billion gallons of water needed each year, Stark said.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, estimates that tapping the Niobrara would require 6.5 billion gallons a year — about 20,000 acre-feet. Colorado uses more than 100 times that amount.

“Even with a vastly increased drilling program, the quantity of water used is still small in the overall scheme of Colorado’s water use,” COGA president Tisha Schuller said.

COGA “plans to work with counties and communities to address all interests in planning for oil and gas development, including infrastructure and water,” she said.

For cities, leasing excess water for fracking can be tempting to boost battered budgets.

Greeley this year sold more than 1,150 acre-feet of excess water from fire hydrants, mostly to oil and gas companies, earning more than $1 million, said city water and sewer director Jon Monson. The city also leased 26,000 acre-feet of surplus surface water to farmers. This was a wet year.

Concerns about drought

One concern is that companies could demand water that may not be available in dry years.

“These are very smart people, with very deep pockets,” Monson said. “I’m sure they can solve the problem.”

Drillers rely on contract water haulers, such as Fort Lupton-based A&W Water Services, which runs a fleet of 200 trucks, each holding 5,000 gallons. A typical fracking job requires 5 million gallons, A&W president Gary Wright said.

A&W leases water from Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Fort Lupton and other cities. Drillers currently demand water treated to drinking standards.

Longmont officials say they leased up to 600 acre-feet a year of treated wastewater that A&W uses to augment water drawn from shallow industrial wells along the South Platte River.

“The water always continues to be a challenge,” Wright said. “I am interested, probably, in any and all sources.”

South Adams County water authorities this month began making water available for a fracking operation east of Commerce City for which testing started Sunday.

Several entities seeking water for fracking recently approached Aurora Water, which controls 70,000 acre-feet of water a year from three river systems, said spokesman Greg Baker.

“They’ve asked,” Baker said. “That’s as far as it has gone.”

Aurora currently leases 200 acre-feet of excess water to a Nestle bottled water operation, charging $800 an acre-foot — quadruple the usual rate.

But residents are mobilizing in opposition to proposed fracking near Aurora, possibly within city limits. The city raised water rates in recent years to fund a massive, award-winning water recycling project designed to sustain expanding suburbs.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, who represents the area in the legislature, heard from residents at recent forums. She opposes the use of Aurora water for fracking.

“The idea that Aurora has surplus water is a myth. While they can produce it for sale, it comes a very significant cost for the city and to the environment,” Carroll, a Democrat, said in an e-mail. “A deal with the City of Aurora would disrespect the reality of where our water comes from and the more immediate residential needs of the South Metro area.”

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or bfinley@denverpost.com

Cities that have leased water

Here are a few of the towns and cities that leased water for fracking of wells to extract oil and gas along Colorado’s Front Range.

Greeley — 1,150 acre-feet

Longmont — About 400 acre-feet

Longmont has a 20-year supply agreement that will increase to 540 acre-feet in 2012 with a cap of 600 acre-feet a year

Fort Lupton — 441 acre-feet

Loveland — amount not disclosed

Frederick — 100 acre-feet

Firestone — amount undetermined

South Adams County Water and Sanitation District — amount undetermined

Walsenburg — arranged deal for at least 5 acre-feet this year for Shell Oil, but the company has not moved ahead

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”