Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have estimated that fracking for natural gas actually saves water in the drought-prone and water-stressed Lone Star State - a counterintuitive conclusion for a process that consumes four to six million gallons of water for every frack job.
The research was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It finds that the water saved by shifting a power plant from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times as great as the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas. Researchers estimated that for every gallon of water used for fracking, 33 gallons of water were saved by generating electricity from natural gas instead of coal.
The study's gross calculation of water savings may be correct, and the answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post is yes - IF water use is narrowly defined. However, there are important nuances to consider here. Consumptive water use for power plant cooling ultimately returns the water withdrawn to the overall water cycle - though it clearly has localized impacts. But as much as 80 percent of the water used in the fracking process remains underground - permanently removed from the water cycle. I have yet to see an analysis of the cumulative impacts of that fact on the overall water cycle.
Clearly, the impacts of hydraulic fracturing are complex. This UTA study points out that end-uses need to be considered.
The finding - significant as it is - doesn't negate the myriad other water-related risks associated with hydraulic fracturing – from earthquakes to impacts on public health.