Fracking Not Responsible For Water Shortages In Texas; In Fact, Natural Gas SAVES Water, Study Claims

By Ajit Jha on December 19, 2013 6:28 PM EST

Drought in Texas
Texas is in the midst of a 3-year long drought. But it has nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing, says a new UT Austin study. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A new University of Texas, Austin study published in Environmental Research Letters will have huge implications for future decisions on electricity generation. According to the study, huge amounts of water could be saved if we changed from thermal to natural gas for electricity generation — even with including significant amount of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process (AKA "fracking") needed to generate natural gas.

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According to the study, the water saved in gas-based electricity generation is anywhere between 25 to 30 times the water consumed in hydraulic fracturing. The study will have huge implications for water deficient, drought-prone states. In addition, natural gas enhances drought resilience, according to the researchers, as it allows for increased wind generation that doesn't require water.

Using data from 2011, the researchers estimated that Texas would have used up an additional 32 billion gallons of water, excluding water consumed in hydraulic fracturing, if all its gas based plants were replaced with coal-based electricity generation plants. That's enough water to fill the needs of 870,000 residents.

The study comes at a time when there are heightened concerns in Texas in particular and the U.S in general over the huge amount of water required in the production of the natural gas. The main drivers behind the natural gas production boom in the U.S are hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. But the truth, according to the study, is that fracking accounts for less than 1 percent of all the water consumed in Texas.

Currently, Texas is in its third year of devastating drought, but the study argues that fracking is not to blame. In fact, according to the study, Texas is making a smart move in going from water intensive coal technologies to natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing because it will lead to more drought resilient electric power system, according to the lead author of the study, Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the university's Bureau of Economic Geology. Electric power supplies from most electric power plants are vulnerable to drought because they rely on water for cooling.  

Since the 1990s, Texas has come to increasingly rely more on the natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plant. NGCC plants are designed to use fuel and cooling water more efficiently than older steam turbine technologies - they consume only about one third as much water. Natural gas combustion turbine (NGCT) plants are the next major source of electricity in Texas. These plants provide "peaking power" and support expansion of wind energy, thereby help reduce water consumption since wind turbines don't require water. An optimum combination of NGCT and wind generation can further lower total water use. 

Image above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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