Fresh Ideas: Oil and water: Fracking in Nevada

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is when water and a mix of chemicals are injected deep underground to fracture oil and gas-bearing rock and provide cracks and fissures along which oil and gas can flow. Since most easy oil and gas in North America already has been pumped — no more Beverly Hillbillies-style gushers — fracking is how most oil and gas is obtained now.

Fracking is coming to Nevada. Noble Energy has drilled two test wells in Elko County, and the state’s first fracking occurred in one of them. This year the BLM is offering several oil and gas lease sales on public land throughout the state. In the environmental assessments the BLM says fracking is likely to take place in the development of oil and gas wells on public land.

Oil and gas development in Nevada is not new. More than 48 million barrels of oil have been produced from Nevada oil fields. The oil reservoir currently of interest to oil and gas companies is the Chainman Formation, a layer of shale extending from north-central Nevada through western Utah which, according to some estimates, may hold up to a billion barrels of oil.

There are serious concerns with the impact of fracking on water quality and quantity, especially in an arid state like Nevada where every drop of water counts.

About 5 percent of fracking fluid consists of chemicals and other substances that are used to prop open cracks and fissures in the rock and to ease pumping. These contaminants cannot be removed. While a few companies are beginning to reuse fracking fluid, mostly the used fluid is disposed of — often left in lined ponds to evaporate. Transporting and treating used fracking fluid can result in spills, contaminating groundwater. The fracking process itself can contaminate groundwater when faulty wells and bore holes allow fracking fluid to leak into groundwater reservoirs.

Fracking uses a lot of water. Western Resource Advocates reports in Colorado, annual water requirements for fracking are 22,100 to 39,500 acre-feet, enough water for 66,400 to 118,400 homes. In a recent report on fracking fluid and water stress, Ceres, an organization that advises investors on environmental risks, reports that in all wells fracked in the United States between 2011 and 2013, more than 97 billion gallons of water were used. Almost half of all wells fracked were in regions with high or extremely high water stress.

That will probably be the case in Nevada. In its environmental assessment for oil and gas leasing in Elko Country, the BLM says “many of the hydrographic areas in Elko County — including those in this lease sale — are fully appropriated or over-appropriated.”

Why are we even thinking about allowing a process that uses and permanently contaminates so much water in Nevada, the driest state in the union? Reese River Basin Citizens Against Fracking is asking the same question, asking a federal judge to halt the sale of BLM oil and gas leases in a lawsuit filed last week.

A bill introduced in the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature would have required a beefed-up permitting process for fracking. Energy company lobbyists objected to the additional layer of permitting, and the heavily amended bill that passed says simply the Divisions of Minerals and Environmental Protection should develop a program to assess the impacts of fracking on waters of the state of Nevada and require disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process.

If we are to properly care for the water of our state, that program should require well operators and regulatory agencies to evaluate and disclose the water volumes used in each oil basin; require operators to submit plans for minimizing water use through efficiency, recycling and reusing water; and include information on how much water returns to the surface after fracking operations take place.

The current draft regulations do not include any of these requirements. In comments on the proposed regulations John Hadder of Great Basin Resource Watch suggests “a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until all concerns are addressed and regulations are in place that will provide for protection of public health and the environment.”

A moratorium is a good idea — it would give our legislature and regulatory agencies time to figure out how best to protect our most precious resource, our water, from the effects of ill-considered oil and gas development.

Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at


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