Hydraulic fracturing seen helping Texas fight drought

Even though it takes a lot of water to produce oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing, the fuel that results ultimately cuts overall water use in Texas and makes the state less vulnerable to drought, says a study from the University of Texas at Austin.

Hydraulic fracturing, combined with horizontal drilling, has unleashed a bounty of cheap natural gas in the United States by providing access to energy trapped in deep, dense shale rock.

The fracturing process involves forcing massive volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals underground to break the rock and release oil and gas.

The growing supply of natural gas has prompted utilities to substitute it for coal as the preferred fuel for electric generation plants. Natural gas plants use much less water, according to the study, and the resulting water savings is 20 to 50 times greater than the water used to extract the gas through hydraulic fracturing.

“Boosting natural gas production and moving the state from water-intensive coal technologies, makes our electric power system more drought resilient,” said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist for the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.

Hydraulic fracturing can use up to 5 million gallons of water per well, leading to criticism that it is uses too much of the precious resource.

But UT researchers found the consumption is offset by the greater water efficiency in generating power from natural gas vs. coal.

Texas generates about 45 percent of its electricity from natural gas, and about 35 percent from coal, followed by about 10 percent each from nuclear and wind, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The water savings comes from the more efficient cooling towers used in natural gas combined-cycle plants, which have been the primary type of power plant built in Texas since the 1990s. Combined-cycle plants use about a third as much water as coal steam turbine plants.

The study found Texas would have consumed an additional 32 billion gallons of water in 2011 if all of its natural-gas-fired power plants used coal instead, even after factoring in the water used in hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas.

Hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than 1 percent of the water consumed statewide, the report said, though the percentage may be higher in areas that have been hit hard by drought conditions in the last three years.

Those regions may not experience the net water savings recorded statewide, as the natural gas and generated electricity would not necessarily be consumed locally.

Texas grid planners have projected that under current natural gas prices, two-thirds of new power generation by 2030 will come from combined combustion natural gas plants.

Natural-gas-fired plants also are a better complement to wind generation — which doesn't require water — because they can be fired up more quickly than coal plants to provide power when winds are calm. The combination of wind and natural gas will further reduce the demand for water in electricity generation, the report said.

Researchers collected water use data for all 423 of the state's power plants from the Energy Information Administration and from state agencies for the study.

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