In Dan’s post about hypothetical elevated transport networks, he cited that each well needs up to 1000 truck visits to drill. So what are these trucks transporting? Mostly, water. Anywhere from 400 to 800 truckloads of water are hauled out to a single drill site. Due to the high salinity of groundwater in the area (for example, the water in Watford City has sodium levels 18x higher than recommended by the EPA), which causes damage to drilling equipment and can contaminate oil reserves, water is used to flush out the underground networks. In addition to high salinity, the water in this region has extremely high levels of sulfates and magnesium. Each well uses around 2 million gallons of water to drill and another 6.6-8.8 million gallons of maintenance water over its lifetime (30-40 year). In 2012 the oil industry in North Dakota used 5.5 billion gallons. At the current rate of drilling, in the next 10-20 years with around 40,000 total wells, the industry could use 10.2 billion gallons of water per year. Another way to look at it: 20% of the cost of drilling a well is for water, that equates to $1,700,000 on average.
Industrial water consumers have two options to obtain water; independent water providers and the Western Area Water Supply (WAWS, commonly referred to as the co-op). The WAWS is backed by the state government, and their mission is to provide good water to residents and municipalities. Ironically, the WAWS funds its development by selling water to frackers, which covers 80% of their infrastructure costs. The price for residential water is 21 cents/barrel, while frackers pay 84 cents/barrel. Whereas, the independent water providers, is essentially an ad-hoc group of people with mineral rights and $150,000 to set up a water depot on their property. These water depots set their own prices and charge anywhere from 50-70 cents/barrel. The state government has actively resisted issuing permits to independent water providers because they oppose the competition with WAWS, also citing potential damage to fish and wildlife resources and better alternatives for the industry to access water.
Based on the demand for water, control over access and distribution of this increasingly valuable resource has been the source of some serious conflict. In 2011, private water sellers grossed $25-30 million selling to frack operations, and the region’s municipalities (representing around 2,000 people) that sold their excess supplies generated an extra $10 million. For some, the presence of the government backed co-op in the industrial market is an overreach of a program that is intended to serve residents’ domestic needs first and foremost. Nearly all of the water that the independents use comes from the Missouri River basin, but much of their supplies come from ground water tapped using control of the mineral rights of privately owned land. Whereas, the WAWS gets all of its water from Lake Sakakawea, which was created with the construction of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. The water in this reservoir is thus controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE). Enter federal government.
As if this system didn’t have enough players already, we’re now looking at the federal government controlling access to surface water in lake Sakakawea (which because of the dam is considered surplus storage by the USACOE), the state government devising a system (WAWS) to distribute and control who has access to how much water and when, and the free market and all of those independents who have mineral rights are exercising their rights to free water (yes, all of these people and organizations pay nothing for the water they extract, as long as they have a permit). Then, there’s the whole Missouri River basin, which due to association, means that cities as far away as St.Louis could be effected by water consumption in North Dakota.
By many accounts, there is plenty of fresh water in the Missouri River to provide for domestic, municipal and industrial usage. But the fracking industry doesn’t only consume water, but also needs a plan for the treatment and disposal of billions of gallons of used water. The statistics are staggering, especially when you consider that as much as 100,000 gallons of chemicals are used in each frack operation, and flowback means 15-80% of injected liquids return to the surface (this toxic liquid is commonly referred to as brine). The brine can contaminate existing surface and groundwater. Currently, the frackers have many ways of disposing of the brine; it’s either pumped deep underground, taken away to disposal sites, or filtered and returned to the ecosystem.