Farmers and fracking firms pitted against each other over water use

US and UK farmers have been pitted against oil exploration companies in new environmental reports assessing future pressures on global water resources.

A key feature in the reports is the comparison of the volumes of water used in livestock and crop production, versus volumes used in the gas and oil exploration method ‘fracking’ — the hydraulic fracturing of rock by ‘power-hosing’ it with millions of litres of water.

In one report, Prof Robert Oswald of Cornell University in the US advised authorities in the UK to ban fracking. He says the practice poses a significant risk to the wellbeing of livestock.

His study cites “alarming” deaths and deformities in US livestock. Prof Oswald is a specialist in molecular medicine.

He compiled 24 incidents in six US states where livestock on farms adjacent to drilling sites died or suffered illness, including reproductive and neurological problems. His report also logged chemicals used in the fracking process.

“Farmers living in intensively-drilled areas should be very concerned about potential exposures of their crops and herds to shale-gas contaminants in the water, air and soil,” Prof Oswald told The Ecologist, a UK environmental magazine. “Farmers have a right to know what their families and their herds are being exposed to.

The UK’s Department of Agriculture said it is keeping issues relating to oil and gas exploration under review, but said it was unaware of any significant animal health issues directly linked to fracking.

However, the concerns of US environmentalists have met with mixed responses from investment market analysts. A report issued this week by ‘green’ investor network Ceres has excited particularly strong reaction.

Ceres estimates 75% of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled in the US since 2011 were located in areas of the country already facing water scarcity.

Over half of those new wells were in areas experiencing drought. The Ceres report says half of the 97bn gallons of water used for fracking since 2011 has gone back into wells in Texas, a state in the midst of a years’-long drought. Ceres cites negative impacts upon farmers and water-using industries such as shale production.

However, a comment piece by market analyst John Kemp, published by Reuters on Thursday, accused Ceres of failing “to put the amount of water used by frackers into proper perspective”.

He cites a US Geological Survey report which logged the USA as using 349bn gallons of fresh water every day in 2005. In that year, the biggest users of freshwater were coal, gas and nuclear power plants.

“The next biggest single use of water is for irrigation, which includes crops as well as golf courses,” says Mr Kemp. “In 2005, irrigation used 144bn gallons of fresh water every day, of which 75bn came from surface sources and 54bn were pumped from underground aquifers.

“In other words, frackers used the same amount of water in 2011-2013 that US farmers typically withdraw from underground aquifers every two days. The real competition is not between frackers and households, but between oil and gas producers and farmers. In comparison, the daily consumption of fresh water by industry (17bn gallons), mining (2.3bn gallons) and homes and offices (48bn gallons) is modest.”

Meanwhile, in Ireland last year, fracking captured the public attention during a brief media debate. While exploration companies are investigating oil and gas deposits in Irish waters, fracking is not one of their current discovery methods.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed it has begun a two-year study into the extraction method. Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte and Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd both said there would be no fracking in Ireland until the EPA study is completed.


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