21 December 2013, 2013, News Wires – Hydraulic fracturing may actually help conserve water in the long run as the gas the technology frees up can supplant the water-intensive needs of electricity generated by coal, a new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied water-use data from all 423 power plants in the state of Texas, concluding that “the transition from coal to natural gas for power generation is saving water and making the state less vulnerable to drought”. Texas produces more power than any other state.
“Even though exploration for natural gas through hydraulic fracturing requires significant water consumption in Texas, the new consumption is easily offset by the overall water efficiencies of shifting electricity generation from coal to natural gas,” researchers said in a statement.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about the demands fracking puts on freshwater resources in places like west Texas and elsewhere suffering through devastating droughts.
But the recent study, which was published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters, estimated that the water saved by shifting a power plant from coal to gas is 25 to 50 times as great as the amount of water used in fracking.
Gas can also supplement wind-power plants at times of peak use, which could promote even lower levels of water consumption from power generation.
According to the study, in 2011 alone Texas would have consumed an additional 32 billion gallons of water if all its gas-fired power plants were instead coal-fired plants, “even after factoring in the additional consumption of water for hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas”.
“The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing, by 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 at the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology, who led the study.
Fracking accounts for less than 1% of the water consumed in Texas.
However, the researchers conceded that because gas is often consumed far from where it is produced, “water savings from shifting to natural gas for electricity generation might not benefit the areas that use more water for hydraulic fracturing”.
UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences helped fund the research along with the State of Texas Advanced Resource Recovery programme, a state-funded programme managed by the Bureau of Economic Geology.