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Here’s How to Keep Fracking Alive and Conserve Water

Article by William McKenzie September 16, 2014 //   6 minute read

The way Brent Halldorson sees it, the debate over hydraulic fracturing is offering up a false choice. In states like Texas, Colorado and New York, residents are being asked to favor drilling for natural gas or conserving water for future generations.

“You are either put in a pro-development camp or an anti-development camp. The reality is you have to deal with both issues,” says Halldorson, the chief operating officer of Fountain Quail Water Management.

Also chairman of the Texas Water Recycling Association, Halldorson believes that water conservation is not too costly for producers when they use hydraulic fracturing to unleash natural gas from shale rock. Nor does the fracking process and the water it demands have to be detrimental to existing water supplies. Water recycling is the way beyond this false choice.

"If you can manage water properly,” Halldorson said during a recent interview, “you can get away from the pro- or anti-fracking choice.” His North Texas-based company is investing in ways to bring these two sides together. The firm has a process to recycle the wastewater that the fracking process produces. In return, energy producers can use the same water over and over and local communities have less stress put on their water supplies.

Fountain Quail applied its mobile technology in the Barnett Shale production that largely launched the fracking revolution. Now, it is using that technology in the expansive Permian Basin production. The firm is not the only company selling its recycling services or investing in the capacity to reuse water in producing energy reserves. As James Osborne explains in this Dallas Morning News piece, Fasken Oil and Ranch has bet on recycling water for producing those found on its property. The process will allow the West Texas ranch to preserve its water supplies.

Why the marriage of recycling and fracking makes sense

These kinds of innovations are important for ecological, economic and security reasons. Ecologically, rethinking the fracking process can help big energy states realize the benefits of production while preserving water supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing does not have to add significantly to the overall water use in a state and recycling can mitigate the demands on water supplies in areas vibrant with production, like South Texas. By using less water, producers also have less need to inject large volumes of wastewater back into the earth. Injection wells have become controversial with earthquakes occurring in some areas with active fracking operations.

The question is, how can recycling become more of a common strategy? Halldorson rejects the idea that it is too costly. He believes that the shortage of water in some places like West Texas will drive producers to consider recycling. Indeed, the Permian Basin can still provide ample energy reserves, but its water supply is not limitless.

To some extent, the market will have to answer this question. Texas legislators have given some incentives to hasten recycling, but factors like the cost of disposing of wastewater will shape the answer. Similarly, innovators in the marketplace will play a big role in determining the economic feasibility of water recycling.

Economically, we should be cheering the marriage of water recycling and hydraulic fracturing. The energy production that the fracking process has spawned is driving economic growth in a micro and macro way. Look at the charts where unemployment is low. Rates are low in communities like Midland-Odessa, Bismarck and Fargo, where oil and gas production is booming.

The energy growth is a key driver in the larger U.S. economy, too. For one thing, manufacturers have a cheaper source of fuel to generate electricity. That helps expand their work, which leads to more job growth.

Roger Altman, deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton Administration, accurately summed up the macro-economic impact this way in a recent Time essay: “The rise, fall and rise of the American oil-and-gas sector is probably, together with the Internet, the biggest economic breakthrough in the this country in 50 years.”

In states like Colorado, California and even here in Texas, some environmentalists and local leaders want to shut down fracking. But that would come at great risk to the national economy and the economies of local communities.

North America’s Potential

For security reasons as well, we should hope that fracking doesn’t get shut down. This production, and its potential in Canada and Mexico, makes it possible for the United States and our North American neighbors to become more energy sufficient.

The New York Times reported that the development of energy supplies through shale production in the United States replaced the energy supplies that were lost because of the prolonged unrest in the Mideast and Africa over the last five years. There may be other geopolitical reasons to be involved in such hotspots, but energy worries need not force us into them if we continue developing this continent’s supplies.

Americans may never reach complete energy independence given the nature of energy markets. But we can become more secure through developing supplies of natural gas and oil throughout North America. When done innovatively, hydraulic fracturing can improve our security, enhance our economic well-being and respect the environment.