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Is there water enough for U.S. to frack its way to energy independence?

Technician Sean Cline finishes up the conversion of a diesel engine on Jan. 17, 2013, that has been converted to run on a blend of diesel and natural gas in Gibsonia, Pa. Oil- and gas companies from Pennsylvania to Texas are using the huge diesel engines to operate pumps that propel millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals down a well bore in the fracturing process to break apart rock or tight sands that trap natural gas.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

In chemistry you quickly discover that oil and water don't mix. The same is true in the energy industry.

It's unfortunate, because the new fuel sources that the International Energy Agency claims will allow North America to reach energy independence require tremendous amounts of water. Whether from shale plays or the oil sands, millions of gallons of water are needed to pull that energy out of the ground.

Alberta's oil-sands mines require more than three barrels of water to produce a barrel of bitumen. With daily output of 1.5 million barrels, the oil sands is one thirsty customer. Fortunately for Big Oil, northern Alberta is blessed with the mighty Athabasca River.

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Many U.S. shale producers wish they were so lucky. The industry's growing need for water comes at a time when much of the country is grinding through the worst drought in more than half a century.

That's bad news for hydraulic fracturing – the latest cure for America's energy addiction. Fracking is a process that injects a mixture of water and rock-shattering chemicals (all benign, according to industry) into an underground shale formation with the goal of opening fissures in the rock that allow hydrocarbons to flow to the surface.

To get an idea of how much water is involved in the process, consider that in Texas's Eagle Ford formation, one of the country's most prolific shale plays, it takes about 600,000 litres to drill a single well. And that's a drop in the bucket compared to the 23 million litres that are needed to frack that same well.

Unlike northern Alberta, there isn't a whole lot of water flowing through Texas these days. Last summer, companies were forced to truck in water from as far as 120 kilometres away in order to drill their wells.

Producers in Pennsylvania are running into similar problems trying to drill into the region's Marcellus formation. State water authorities have cut off companies from drawing water from at least two major rivers. A shortage of water forced one producer, Breitling Oil and Gas, to shutter production from more than 10 per cent of its wells.

When it comes to achieving energy independence, the ongoing drought in the U.S. Midwest is an unexpected obstacle. Production from North Dakota's Bakken play, already at 700,000 barrels a day, holds the potential to double and even triple, according to the IEA. That forecast, however, is critically contingent on sourcing adequate supplies of water. Simply put, without water you can't frack.

We're already seeing a tug of war between the water needs of the fracking boom in the Bakken and barge traffic on the Mississippi.

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North Dakota wants to tap reservoirs that feed the Missouri River for fracking. Others want that water diverted to the Mississippi to ensure the river maintains the minimum level needed for shipping. South of St. Louis, low water levels are threatening to shut down commercial barge traffic.

Drought and fracking clearly don't mix. Will America's shale revolution soon run out of water?

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About the Author
Jeff Rubin

In his follow-up to his award-winning and number one best-selling first book Why Your World  Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin asks a fundamental question: “What will it be like to live in a world without growth?”The end of cheap oil means the end of the easy answers to renewing prosperity. More

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