Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use

Published May 30, 2013

The expansion of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling continues to enable profitable extraction of oil and gas in many states across the country. Water is an essential component of both the drilling and fracturing phases of the process. As a result, some are asking whether hydraulic fracturing will place an undue burden on water supplies, especially in areas vulnerable to droughts.

According to Chesapeake Energy, drilling a well requires 65,000 to 650,000 gallons of water, and hydraulic fracturing requires five million gallons of water on average. Hydraulic fracturing requires water mixed with trace amounts of sand and chemical additives to be injected under pressure to fracture the underground shale formations and stimulate the flow of oil and natural gas for collection.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the four to five million gallons of water consumed just once by a shale well are consumed weekly by the average golf course. Regulators from New York, Colorado, and the U.S. Department of Energy have examined water use from shale development in several different contexts and have come to the same conclusion: Concerns over excessive water use are unfounded, especially given the economic benefits.

An analysis by Ron Muhlenkamp of the Pennsylvania-based investment management firm Muhlenkamp & Co. found a Marcellus shale well requires 0.16 gallons of water to generate the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. By contrast, corn ethanol requires 2,259 gallons of water to produce the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. That means developing natural gas from shale is 14,000 times more water-efficient in producing energy than corn ethanol.

Representatives from the oil and gas industry say they’re currently promoting efforts to use even less water. Bloomberg reports Halliburton Co., one of the largest oilfield service companies in the world, plans to use 25 percent less fresh water in hydraulic fracturing by the end of 2014.

Today, 97 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water is underground, a considerable amount of which is still undiscovered. Some say water’s increasing value from its usefulness for hydraulic fracturing may become the key factor to spur new investment in water resource discovery and production and thus increase future supplies. Suppressing hydraulic fracturing based on unfounded concerns about water use will impede economic growth while failing to increase water supplies. 

The following documents provide additional information about hydraulic fracturing and its water use.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help withstand ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography. 

Water’s Growing Value Will Generate More Accessible Supply
Heartland Institute Science Director and ground hydrology expert Jay Lehr, Ph.D. explains how hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies have made water resources more valuable, thus spurring advancements in water exploration technologies likely to lead to the discovery of vastly greater supplies.

Shale Gas versus Ethanol: A Water Perspective
Ron Muhlenkamp, an independent investment manager from Pennsylvania, calculates whether shale gas or corn ethanol produces more energy relative to the amount of water it requires to develop it. 

Wastewater (Flowback) from Hydraulic Fracturing
This fact sheet from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources explains the wastewater flowback, collection, and disposal process of hydraulic fracturing and points out the total amount of water used to fracture a horizontally drilled well is roughly equivalent to what the average golf course consumes in one week. 

Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use
Energy in Depth’s Illinois Field Director Kyna Legner collects data from regulators and academics from several states to show water use from oil and natural gas activity to be relatively small. 

Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use: Get the Facts
Geologist Dana Bohan provides much-needed context for water use claims regarding hydraulic fracturing in multiple states. She finds water use from these activities is relatively small compared with other industries, and she describes the industry’s efforts to further reduce its water use. 

America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the U.S. Economy
The energy and engineering consulting firm IHS, Inc. highlights the economic contributions of unconventional oil and gas development such as hydraulic fracturing. 

Shale Gas by the Numbers
Yale University economic researchers report the results of their cost-benefit analysis of shale gas drilling, concluding the economic benefit exceeds the cost to the community by a ratio of 400 to one. 

Natural Gas Development and Hydraulic Fracturing: A Policymaker’s Guide
Jacquelyn Pless, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures, offers a primer on hydraulic fracturing, how it is applied, and what policymakers need to know.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.