Could fracking actually save water?

Hydraulic fracking uses a lot of water. But how does it compare to coal?

Many critics of fracking tend to focus on its use of water. It is true that the act of fracturing wells in order to pump out the oil and gas within can be a water-intensive process—requiring as much as 4 to 6 million gallons per well. However, fracking cannot be considered in a vacuum. It must be judged against competing energy sources.

When this fact is taken into account, fracking looks much better than critics will admit.

For example, a recent study compares the water usage of fracking to that of coal. It turns out that coal-fired power plants—not exactly the poster boys for sustainability—actually use much more water than most people expect. The report concluded that when a coal plant switches to natural gas, the amount of water saved is as much as 50 times greater than what is expended to access the gas in the first place.

That's because energy sources like coal and natural gas generate electricity in the same way: by heating water to create steam that turns a turbine. But since natural gas is much more efficient that coal, it can generate power with less initial water input.

A recent article in Time notes that fresh water supplies in some of our major energy producing states, like Texas, are already under stress. In addition, gas drilling is increasing rapidly, thanks to technology like hydraulic jet pumps and other artificial lift solutions. It follows that the industry will adjust by embracing more water recycling techniques and other measures to further improve efficiency.