The fracking industry is resource intensive and toxic to the environment. Its massive consumption of water, a vital natural resource, is vastly beyond the land's capacity to sustain it. The extraction of such vast quantities of water naturally raises concerns about the industry's substantial impact on agriculture and river health, as well as dewatering aquifers and lowering water tables.
16×9's Investigation on Natural Gas Fracking runs for almost 17 minutes. We think the whole clip is worth watching, but we've included it here because around 4:35 in the video, Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Bob Simpson, gives a gives a good indication of how much water is consumed in just one shale gas frack.
Untested Science: Investigation into Gas Fracking
It takes around 1 million litres of water to drill a single shale gas well, but it takes much more water than that to frack a gas well. APPEA, the peak body for the oil and gas industry in Australia, says it uses 11 million litres of water per shale or tight gas frack.
Independent sources say the amount water used is much higher. The United Nations Environment Program report says that a single frack on a shale gas well uses between 11 and 34 million litres of water.
Water for Shale and Tight Gas
Each shale gas well is reportedly fracked around 10 times, which means that each well swallows between 110 and 340 million litres of water. Multiply this by the hundreds or thousands of densely spaced wells in a typical gasfield and it's easy to see that fracking consumes staggering quantities of water.
Compared to CSG, shale gas deposits contain relatively low amounts of water. This means that when shale gas wells are dewatered, there's very little water that can be recycled and used in the well injection phase. For shale and tight gas wells, in particular, massive amounts of water have to be trucked to the well from other sources, such as from surface pipelines or other underground aquifers.
On an island with already fully allocated water resources, whose water needs would take priority in the battle for water in Tasmania?
The DPIPWE final report into the Tasmanian Government's review of fracking confirms that the shallow aquifers in the Midlands region are likely only capable of meeting stock and domestic requirements on agricultural properties.
Mineral Resources Tasmania has indicated that Tasmania's water scheme would be raided by fracking companies. The water in the scheme can be bought by anyone; speculators can sell their water to gas companies with massive mark-ups. Farmers will need to compete with the deep pockets of gas companies for their water.
Water for Food or Fracking
Emphasising the priority given to mining interests over food production (the new 'normal'), in January 2015, the Queensland state government passed legislation that leap-frogged large scale mining and agribusiness to the front of the water allocation queue. The legislation allows miners in Queensland to take ground water without having to buy licences or to adhere to caps.
It's not unreasonable to draw similarities from the favourable treatment given to oil and gas companies by government in the US. The infamous Halliburton Loophole has exempted frackers from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2005.
The massive consumption of water for fracking operations impacts our island's water security. Unlike the water used in farming, which remains a part of the water cycle, the water used for fracking is largely irrecoverable. The risk of pumping aquifers, rivers, lakes, and streams dry is serious. Plainly, water loss has grave implications for our food security too.
There is a growing body of evidence from across the US that water resources are being significantly depleted by unconventional gas operations. US towns and pastoral properties that have to compete with fracking operators for scarce water supplies have been seriously affected.
The issue is broadly similar, whether we are talking about water security in Tasmania, on mainland Australia or in the continental US. Spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity and Californians Against Fracking, Patrick Sullivan, says that unlike ordinary water usage, much of the contaminated water from fracking can't be used again:
It is water that most likely cannot be put back into the water cycle. It's water that is by and large gone for good.
Phillip Doe, former environmental compliance officer for the US Bureau of Reclamation, crystallises the issue for us best when he says:
When water is used for fracking, it's used to extinction. It's taken out of the hydrological cycle, never used again. When they say 5 million gallons for a frack, they're talking about 5 million gallons that will never see light again, and that's if they're lucky.
The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) has categorised the risk of chemical contamination of land and water from fracking as almost certain. Contamination can be the result of well casing failures due to corrosion, faulty construction or repeated fracturing, but fracking provides opportunities for 'contamination events' to occur throughout the process. One US study identified some risk at every stage of a fracking operation, including spills during transportation, waste storage pit failure, well casing failure, and leaks or migration of fracking brine from wells.
Surface Water Contamination
Surface water contamination can occur through accidental spills of fluids or solids at the surface, well blow-outs, illegal dumping of waste, or from insufficiently treated waste water being discharged into waterways.
Apart from deliberate dumping, insufficiently treating waste before dispersal or industrial accidents, natural disasters like bushfires, floods and major storms can help to disperse harmful fracking contaminants into the environment. Rain can cause pits to overflow and contaminate soil and surface water. In 2013 minor flooding of the Nepean River in NSW topped a fracking waste water pit. The pit was totally submerged and its contents presumably washed into the river.
Nepean River Floods Wastewater Pit
Groundwater contamination can occur if gas or toxic flowback fluids migrate from gas wells into aquifers through natural underground faults or through the fractures created during fracking operations. Studies in the US have pinpointed shale gas fracking as the most likely suspect in the contamination of groundwater with high levels of heavy metals, salts and gas. Other research has found high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals, and higher levels of salinity in farm water bores within a few kilometres of shale gas wells.
Tasmania's Water Systems
The DPIPWE final report into the Tasmanian Government's review of fracking notes that little is known about the groundwater resources of the Tasmania Basin, including a lack of data on aquifer type, location, yields, quality, flow directions, connectivity with surface water, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems. In these circumstances, fracking is a high risk to Tasmania's water systems.
Even if the risk of contamination is very low, a precautionary approach to the protection of our vital water supply demands that any activity that could adversely affect the quantity and quality of water Tasmania's sources should not be contemplated. The precautionary principle dictates that the appropriate risk management strategy to protect the safety and security of Tasmania's water supply is not to accept any risk.
The Tasmanian Government discontinued groundwater monitoring for chemical contamination in 2014. If fracking was suspected of contaminating our water, the lack of monitoring and testing means the source of the contamination couldn't be traced back to fracking. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, companies that are suspected of contaminating rivers and waterways can’t then be investigated, warned or penalised by the regulator.