Photo: Trading water for fuel is fracking crazy

Drought and fracking have already caused some small communities in Texas to run out of water altogether, and parts of California are headed for the same fate. (Credit: Merinda Brayfield)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor

It would be difficult to live without oil and gas. But it would be impossible to live without water. Yet, in our mad rush to extract and sell every drop of gas and oil as quickly as possible, we're trading precious water for fossil fuels.

A recent report, "Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress", shows the severity of the problem. Alberta and B.C. are among eight North American regions examined in the study by Ceres, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocating for sustainability leadership.

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One of the most disturbing findings is that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is using enormous amounts of water in areas that can scarcely afford it. The report notes that close to half the oil and gas wells recently fracked in the U.S. "'are in regions with high or extremely high water stress' and more than 55 per cent are in areas experiencing drought. In Colorado and California, almost all wells — 97 and 96 per cent, respectively — are in regions with high or extremely high water stress, meaning more than 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater has already been allocated for municipalities, industry and agriculture. A quarter of Alberta wells are in areas with medium to high water stress.

Drought and fracking have already caused some small communities in Texas to run out of water altogether, and parts of California are headed for the same fate. As we continue to extract and burn ever greater amounts of oil, gas and coal, climate change is getting worse, which will likely lead to more droughts in some areas and flooding in others. California's drought may be the worst in 500 years, according to B. Lynn Ingram, an earth and planetary sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley. That's causing a shortage of water for drinking and agriculture, and for salmon and other fish that spawn in streams and rivers. With no rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles area has returned to dangerous levels of decades past.

Because of lack of information from industry and inconsistencies in water volume reporting, Ceres' Western Canada data analysis "represents a very small proportion of the overall activity taking place." Researchers determined, though, that Alberta fracking operations have started using more "brackish/saline" groundwater instead of freshwater. The report cautions that this practice needs more study "given the potential for brackish water to be used in the future for drinking water" and the fact that withdrawing salty groundwater "can also adversely impact interconnected freshwater resources."

Although B.C. fracking operations are now mainly in low water stress regions, reduced precipitation and snowpack, low river levels and even drought conditions in some areas — likely because of climate change — raise concerns about the government's plan to rapidly expand the industry. The report cites a "lack of regulation around groundwater withdrawals" and cumulative impacts on First Nations lands as issues with current fracking.

Ceres' study only looks at fracking impacts on freshwater supplies, and offers recommendations to reduce those, including recycling water, using brackish or wastewater, strengthening regulations and finding better ways to dispose of fracking wastewater. But the drilling method comes with other environmental problems, from groundwater contamination to massive ecosystem and habitat disruption — even small earth tremors — all done in the name of short-term gain.

It's important to heed the conclusions and recommendations of this study and others, but given the problems with fracking, and other forms of extraction, we must find ways to control our insatiable fossil fuel demand. That burning these — often wastefully — contributes to climate change, and our methods of extraction exacerbate the problems, should make us take a good look at how we're treating this planet and everything on it, including ourselves and generations to come. It's a reminder that we need to conserve energy in every way possible.

In the short term, we must realize that we have better ways to create jobs and build the economy than holding an "everything must go" sale on our precious resources. In the longer term, we must rethink our outdated economic systems, which were devised for times when resources were plentiful and infrastructure was scarce. Our highest priorities must be the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that provides food and the biodiversity that keeps us alive and healthy.

February 20, 2014

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Aug 02, 2017
11:08 PM

We sacrifice the loss of clean water to gain oil, gas and coal through fracking. We need fossil fuel for the economic growth. But can we live without clean drinking water? I have commented to other blogs regarding this issue and I always say that we should tap other safe resources other than fossil fuel. If it’s possible to eliminate our dependence to fossil fuel, that would be great. I know it’s impossible for now, but if we begin today to use green energy or solar power we will succeed and prevent further pollution.

Please check out my blog if you can:

Jan 05, 2016
3:42 PM

I had watched a show on fracking,and being our township just fought for alteast 6 years to get it into out town,it was just approved.Watching that show,I wanted to ask our mayor how much research have then done,before give the ok,today I met up with her.Told her about the show that david had on,on fracking,the damage it is doing to our water supply,and that she should take time to find the show and watch it.So the question I have,would david be willing to send an email to the Kincardine Ontario town council,or to our mayor Ann Eddie,she will read it,I even told her if I found how to get you,s to send some information to her,that I would ask ,so here I am asking.I am not good with letters,or even spelling,but I had to step out of my comfort area,because water is life,so hate to see it come into our town,when you,s have knowledge to let her know what it will do.I hope you,s are able to send some info,to our mayor of Kincardine Ontario,more info,the better before the process starts.Thank you

Jun 03, 2014
2:00 PM

To Alf, you raise some interesting points, however, at the end of the day, if you look at ALL the evidence for clean energy (Tesla wireless energy, Stanley Myers water car, and the long list goes on) and how it’s been systematically and brutally suppressed you WILL come to realize one day that a rather small bunch of psychopaths are RUNNING this planet. Remove them, and the doors OPEN to clean energy and everything else enlightened humans beings deserve that has been given to us by our Creator. Don has the right idea (as do others).

Mar 14, 2014
3:56 PM

Civilization grows and develops by doing more and more work against the environment. Life is work against the environment which stresses both being and environment. (Or civilization grows by increasing its rate of entropy production. “Pollution” is just a fraction of this entropy avalanche.) “We” trade parts of nature for various self-interests at an increasingly faster rate. How are some able to determine which self-interest has priority over the environment (the thing outside of THE self-interest) Question mark. What about fracking of society for group profit at the expense of the environment? “Environmental protection” is a 100 billion dollar industry, but where is the protected environment? “Environmental protection” is just another industry which increases load on nature as sorce of convertble energy and sink of entropy by conversion processes. Why do the protectors of the environment not call for significant reduction of entropy production by society? Well, they would be the among the first to make the sacrifice.

Feb 23, 2014
10:17 AM

YES YES YES. In a world of ever-growing resource demand and wate production, we ARE in the process of overwhelming the earh’s capacity to rpvide resources sustainably and receive, dilute and recycle our waste. Our ABSOLUTE priority, looking into the future, is NOT enrgy production: it is, and must, be the preservation of the life-sustaining ecosystems and nutrient cycles that make the stuff of life! Being pragamtic: nothing else CAn be as important as that, for the sake of future generations. Extreme fossil fuel extraction has NO place in today’s world and their ARE alternatives: No to mountain top removal (how dumb can you get?), No to deep-sea and Arcitic drillling No to Tar Sands (can you be even dumber?), and No to fracking, especialy in rich agricultural lands, national parks, close to communities or water-scarce areas! Some things are just TOO important to be sacrificed on the altar of dubious “development” as our quality of life actualy decreases.. Is it so hard to understand?

Feb 22, 2014
1:56 PM

and yet, with a bit of R D we could be using water — via it’s hydrogen, for fuel… and be left with clean water as a bi-product

Feb 22, 2014
1:51 AM

All of the arguments go out the window in the face of Provincial debt. If you want to save our province then we must reverse the debt trend. The Provincial government does not print money, it only taxes, borrows, and sells assets. They are now selling our water, our lives.

Feb 21, 2014
1:41 PM

You guys are fracking crazy. Fracking does not go on forever it is a short term process to develop the gas/oil wells and then is finished. Most of the fracking that is going on now uses recycled water or water that is not potable and the fracking process is becoming more efficient and uses less water.

You suggest that climate change is a result of fossil fuel consumption and therefore is indirectly caused by fracking. Climate change has been happening for millions of years and has nothing to do with burning of fossil fuels. You are linking global warming to climate change when there has been no global warming for some 17 or 18 years now.

If you kill off the fossil fuel industry, as you are trying to do, you will cause far more damage to the environment than if you just leave things alone as they currently are. Where do you think the money comes from to support programs such as your own and research into environmental protection. It certainly doesn’t come from McDonalds jobs or from the tourist industry. In Canada our economy is based on resource industries. Sorry but that is the way it is.

If your arguments regarding anthropogenic global warming and climate change were correct it might be a good idea to throttle the use of fossil fuels however research has now virtually proven that this is not the case. Of course this is very hard to accept when you have bet your life, your career, your paycheque from Tides Foundation and your reputation on faulty research

The best way to control consumption of fossil fuels is to use the resources that we have which will automatically result in their reduction of use as they become depleted and therefore more expensive. In the mean time money generated by the resource industries will support research into cleaner energy sources that are less polluting.You kill the resource industries and you will make it impossible for this country to support the things you want like health care and education. A healthy resource economy will also support research into more efficient ways of fracking to extract the gas and oil. In fact fracking may even generate more water resources as it will result in drilling of wells that could not normally be drilled due to costs that could be put to use as domestic sources of water and/or discover new water resources along with making these water resources more available for domestic use.

The major problem of your organization is that you only see problems you do not look for silver linings or real solutions. You thrive on confrontation.

Feb 21, 2014
9:49 AM

This is a great summary of how interconnected everything is, and how toying around with one resource can have such a huge effect on so many others. I would like to be involved to help make a difference and help change these ways, but where can we get started? I know we can email/call our political representatives, but is there something more to do? Do you have any recommendations for how people can get involved to help do something about this?

Feb 20, 2014
8:18 PM

If we rethink the meaning of infrastructure and economic systems just a little with problems like this one in mind , job creation would be a piece of cake compared to what we now face.

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