Scarcity of water might be the biggest obstacle to shale exploration, a new World Resources Institute report has found. The report, entitled “Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability and Business Risks,” points out that 38 percent of world shale resources are in areas that are either arid or under high to extremely high levels of water stress.
Furthermore, the report has found that:
- 19 percent are in areas of high or extremely high seasonal variability,
- 15 percent are in locations exposed to high or extremely high drought severity,
- 386 million people live on the land over the discussed shale plays,
- in 40 percent of the shale plays, irrigated agriculture is the largest water user, and
- eight of the top 20 countries with the largest shale gas resources face arid conditions or high to extremely high baseline water stress where the shale resources are located; this includes China, Algeria, Mexico, South Africa, Libya, Pakistan, Egypt, and India.
High baseline water stress is defined as a situation where over 40 percent of the available water supplies are already being withdrawn for agricultural, municipal, or industrial purposes.
The demand for water in shale exploration has long been considered a problem. According to Chesapeake Energy, an initial drilling operation may consume from 6,000 to 600,000 US gallons of water-based fracking fluids, rising to an additional 5 million gallons of water for full operation and possible restimulation frac jobs.
The use of water-alternatives has been proposed by researchers, with most popular replacements being liquid carbon dioxide and liquid nitrogen, but each of these solutions comes with its own problems. They are also likely to be much more expensive than water.
Others advocate recycling and reuse of produced water – i.e. the water that flows back from the well after stimulation. The up side of this solution is the minimising of environmental impact associated with disposing of the produced water. The solution, however, is also problematic. The water produced by shale wells is very saline and very contaminated – reusing it without prior treatment could potentially seriously damage the drilling equipment.
WRI’s findings demonstrate the challenges facing drilling companies trying to access freshwater in many parts of the world. They also believe that companies should work with governments and other sectors to minimize environmental impacts and water resources depletion.
The authors of the report recommend four steps to evaluate freshwater availability before shale energy is developed and manage water sustainably over the long term.
- Conduct water-risk assessments with tools like the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas to understand local-level water availability and reduce business risk.
- Engage with local regulators, communities, and industry to learn as much as possible about existing water demands, and hydrological and regulatory conditions in any river basin, while increasing transparency around shale development.
- Ensure adequate water regulations and participatory legislative processes to guarantee water security and reduce regulatory and reputational risks.
- Minimize freshwater use and practice corporate water stewardship to reduce impacts on water availability.
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