Will Fracking Suck California Dry?

New technologies have expanded oil production, but they're adding another thirsty mouth to the state's tight water market.

Oil pumps in operation at an oilfield near central Los Angeles. (National Journal)

In California, every drop of water counts, and every drop is contested.

The state's fishers and farmers have been at war over water for decades, battling over how to divide the water between river beds and farm fields. And Northern Californians — whose water supplies are more plentiful — live in fear of the desert neighbors to the south marching on the San Francisco Bay Delta with pipelines and straws. And then there are municipalities, which are all jockeying to secure supplies for California's nearly 40 million residents.

But now, they'll all have a new contender to jostle with: the fracking boom.

Oil shale development is taking off in California, thanks in large part to hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, technologies for oil and gas extraction that have opened previously inaccessible fields to development. In order to get at those deposits, however, fracking uses tremendous quantities of water.

For oil developers, it's an issue not to be taken lightly: Californians, hailing from a state known for its green ethos, are already nervous about the impacts of fracking, and if oil companies step on too many toes, it could derail the the energy boom they're so eagerly anticipating.

"The fact is that there is some ambivalence over fracking," said David Hayes, President Obama's former deputy Interior secretary who recently left Washington for a Stanford University professorship. "It'll depend on how the water is handled, but it's certainly an additional challenge."

California's struggles reveal a darker aspect of America's energy boom: Technologies have vastly expanded the country's energy-development options, but they have not — in many cases — expanded the ability to deal with impacts from that development. They haven't produced new infrastructure to carry hydrocarbons to market or new pollution-control technologies to reduce the effects on climate change, and above all, they haven't found a way to maintain or increase water supplies for California.

So how do California's developers intend to increase production without sucking the state dry?

Fracking involves drilling deep below the surface and injecting chemicals and water to release oil and gas deposits trapped in geological formations. In North Dakota, at the heart of the country's most recent energy boom, fracking wells accounted for 5.5 billion gallons worth of water usage last year, according to state estimates.

But developers insist that fracking in California is different from the fracking done farther east. Much of the state's drilling operations are aimed at accessing shale oil rather than natural gas, and because of the state's geology less water is needed.

Dave Quast, California director for oil and gas development advocate Energy in Depth, says that fracking wells in California on average use a little more than 100,000 gallons of water, compared with other wells to the east that guzzle gallons by the millions. And Hayes noted that there are ways for developers to cut down their water footprint, including programs that recycle some or all of the water used in operations.

"But," Hayes cautioned, "that's not the customary approach yet where fracking is required."

For now, the state's regulators are taking a wait-and-see approach. SB 4, the California's landmark fracking law signed last month by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, contains little in the way of restrictions on water usage. Instead, the law contains strict disclosure requirements. Under SB 4, drillers must publicly disclose their water usage starting in 2014.

California's environmental community will be watching when the reports start going online. "One of the big problems is we don't have a handle on how much water is being used. There's a big data gap," said Andrew Grinberg, an Oakland-based oil and gas policy expert for Clean Water Action. But once the information is publicly available, California residents will be better able to gauge how fracking impacts the state's watersheds, aquifers, and reservoirs — and gauge how effectively their regulators are dealing with it, Grinberg said.

"There's definitely a big role for the public and nonprofits," he added. "If we see anything, we need to be prepared to take action."