Shale gas: Water well spent?

In their May 2018 report on water resources in England, the Environment Agency warns that the country is facing water supply shortages by 2050 unless rapid action is taken. Population growth and climate change continue to add pressure to resources that see unsustainable abstraction in more than a quarter of groundwater bodies and up to one-fifth of surface waters. As a result, current levels of abstraction often leave little room for new water uses. With more than a third of existing water abstraction attributed to energy generation and other industries, the Environment Agency has advised the energy industry to seek cost-effective ways to use water more efficiently and invest in resilience to climate change. Their advice is ironically timely.

This month it was announced that the first horizontal shale gas well in the UK has been completed, with the subsequent planning application to hydraulically fracture submitted. Shale gas is promoted by many as a transition fuel to mitigate climate change given its reduced carbon intensity compared to coal and fast reaction times to supplement renewables (Task Force, 2015). However, the extraction process requires the investment of water resources. In 2016, CIWEM calculated that meeting 10% of natural gas demand with shale gas would require 1.2-1.6 million m3 (1,200–1,600 ML) of water per year, 0.1% of total abstraction annually, indicating that the industry would not be a major abstractor. However, the process of extraction results in pads of wells, concentrating the subsurface development to an above surface site, thus magnifying the water demand. As a result, the report acknowledges that there could be “local impacts in areas that are already water stressed if the industry develops”. Furthermore, the term ‘investment of water resources’ is used pertinently as up to 70% (DECC, 2013) of the 10–30 ML (UKOOG, 2016) required can be retained within the geology, lost from the water cycle. Therefore, not only is the water demand concentrated but so too are the losses.

The report states: “Different choices of future energy generation and climate change mitigation strategies will therefore affect water resources in different ways”, yet at present, our energy mix projections are influenced by carbon emission reduction targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. This is compounded by the 2013 Energy Act only mentioning water in a narrow legal context whilst the 2014 Water Act omits energy resources. Yet the nexus between the two resources is more pronounced than ever. Given that we risk a future without enough water for people, business, farmers, wildlife and the environment without the requisite infrastructure efficiencies (National Infrastructure Commission, 2018), isn’t it time to consider our water availability in planning energy resources or is our energy security more important than water?