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 it’s 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 3 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.

Many US 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 fracking — 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 150,000 gallons to drill a single well. And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 6 million gallons 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 away as 75 miles in order to drill their wells.

Producers in Pennsylvania are running into similar problem 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 percent of its wells.

When it comes to achieving energy independence, the ongoing drought in the US 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.

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?

  • Propensity6

    Of course there is gasfracing…etc…but, since oil didnt hit $200 bucks a barrel amid shortages, i guess this is what is called grasing at straws for a headline

  • Tahoe1780

    Waterless fracking —

  • JB

    Does the US concept of north american energy independence includes water sharing?


  • yt75

    Todays propaganda regarding the potential of shale oil/gas is truly disgusting (as much as ommitting saying that it is basically the same stuff but much more expensive and impacting).

  • Ian Dunn

    Energy independence is now an official POLITICAL doctrine – expect the worse.. the recent gun control ‘debate’ might be linked.. – land grabs etc.

  • jaba2872

    Well, I can see the USA and possibly Canada investing in desalinization plants on the west coast and possible off of Texas. As much as this will be costly, I do think USA and Canada will not leave that much energy ($) potential just sitting in the ground.

    I am sure that this increase the price at the pump but the potential loss in revenue let alone taxes is too great to pass up.  

  • Rigpigpetey

    Your diatribe of the complexities of “fraccing” piled into 2000 words makes no sense to the realities of the industry. I hope you appreciate your position within “secular” minds should they embrace your version of our industry, as well, you should pay attention to the footsteps of the people whose backs you rode to get where you are. The only thing i agree with you is that “the world runs on oil”. My biggest chuckle is how the financial sector loves the payoff but wont admit being involved through the peephole,…….   

  • Whatbadgerseat

    Still waiting for $200/bbl

  • Lsiriwa1


    Since the US oil boom, would you accept that you were wrong on the peak oil argument?

  • Aleksey

    Interesting. But do you have any concrete arguments? Or can you refute the arguments of the article?

  • Rigpigpetey

    Well,…..first,…..i don’t know anyone who fracs “bitumen” or “SAG D” types of operations. Bit of misinformation there,……….The article correlates fraccing / bitumen, its not like that. Water in SAG D ops is typically used for steam generation, then recycled when reproduced with the oil/water cut,………for steam again,……and again,…………and again,……
    Uhhmmmmm,…..secondly, operators are using more “oil” to complete fracs,…..fraccing an oilwell or gas well or “wet gas” can be done with either oil or water or propane and there are a other new technologies coming “down the pipeline”.
    Concrete arguments,….how does 40 yrs experinece count? and i didnt get them “one day at a time”. 

    Next time you are filling your vehicle with gas (or plugging it in), take a moment to consider where that gasoline (energy) came from. 

    If nothing is coming out of the nozzle,…………then we’re still drilling,…. 

  • MB

    Nobody said bitumen was fracked.  What was actually documented was that fracking and tar sands use a helluva lot of water with some chemicals added in the case of the former.

    And at least Jeff used his spell checker when saying it.

    Prior posts dealt with the high financial and energy costs to get the stuff out of tight rock formations, and the lower net energy available compared to conventional oil.

  • MB

    One missile fired at one oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz could do it, and I’d even bet $200 will be reached in less than 24 hours.  That’s not just a comment on peak oil, but on our extraordinary level of dependency on finite oil supplies.

    Can’t say the same if some idiot did the same to BC’s Bennett dam.  The ramifications would be isolated.

  • EVHappy

    Just because you bring out the product to the “users” does not mean the resource is going to last forever. 

    The trailing ponds in Alberta clearly show that there is a major environmental problem. I realize however, we humans will not let that or anything stop us from getting our energy, even if we have to build enormous water pipelines where they are needed.

    We will burn everything, everywhere and kill everything to keep business as usual. 

    Regardless, we are entering the second half of the fossil fuel era – The Great Decline. It doesn’t matter what technology you use, it doesn’t matter how many decades of experience you have had during the ride up. The ride down the bell curve is not going to be as much fun for most of us.

    What do you think, we could continue exponential growth in a finite system forever or that it would keep providing the same EROEI? We are now on a negative slope in terms of global net energy production and that will continue with bubble / bust cycles all the way to the bottom of the barrel.

  • Rigpigpetey

    might wanna put those too animals in different cages when implying assertions next time then,……….

    i’m just a rig pig, sorry.

  • Rigpigpetey

    pretty much well said,…………..

    all i can add is, “we drill”, “you write books”, “neighbour cuts my hair”,”buddy serves us lunch”, “maybe oiler beat flames next time”,  ”kids drop off grankids”,..and i need to take the kidlets out tonight but the truck needs gas,……. 

    Yes it’s business as usual, but as i have said in an older post, “what will these kids discover that we missed, because we’ve gotten them this far”.

    Moral of story, we all do what we do, but,………the world runs on “oil”. Thats not anyone’s fault.

    i truly hope we leave a lasting human legacy, but only our children will determine that, as will theirs. 

  • Liz

    Could you explain to me why Canada has to ship its crude oil, from the tar sands, to the United States for refining? That seems to be the argument behind building the Keystone pipeline.  Why don’t we have refineries here? I’m not in favour of fossil fuels at all, but I don’t understand the section in The End of Growth (The Keystone Conundrum) that claims U.S. refineries need our oil and that Canada needs to export it, via pipeline, to the U.S., or be “forced” to build the Northern Gateway and ship to China. I would appreciate clarification. Thanks. E-mail me at or post on the blog.

  • MB

    They are interralated and very relevant issues.

  • Ggsmith1079

    Is the latest in electric cars a way out of this fix?   Motortrend magazine has called Tesla the 2013 car of the year.  Anybody know if these numbers on efficiency add up?

    Tesla used electricity $10.17 vs $34.55 gas BMW on a comparison test drive
     52 lbs vs 152 lbs of CO2
    Does the supposedly more efficient electric (20% vs 80%) engine make up for the energy used in battery and electricity production?

  • Carter Madson

    Not at the rate we’re using it… Illegal water well drilling in alberta  will be the end of it!

  • Crgunn

    HI Jeff
    Have you had a look at what might be another big lie, being peddled by govt of both Sask and Alta – the price diff between WTI and WCC/WCS. I am under the impression that at least some of the discount is the fact that tar sands derived WCC is of a much lower quality than WTI and cannot be cracked into anything like the range of petrochemical products that WTI can be used for. I am not a petrochemical eng so may be out to lunch on this ‘un?
    I admit this may not apply to Bakken derived crude from Sask
     Robert Gunn, Port Alberni BC

  • Smoisanberry


  • Mark Pearce


    The following link is an article which quite convincingly claims that the Shale Gas Industry is another Wall Street driven Ponzi-Pyramid-Scheme. Shale investments last year amounted to $42 billion, whilst shale gas sales amounted to just $36 billion.

  • Franklin Menendez

    Hi Jeff, I have been doing some reading on diluent for the tar sands and Gateway. Appears there’s a 20 in pipe going east in that pipeline(s) bringing this stuff to the region. The diluent is not talked about much in the Canadian media but perhaps it should be, eh? Best wishes, Franklin

  • kitchen lover

    The volume of water is truely amazing, as is the number of times the wells can be fracked, up to, I have heard 18 times over multiple years. Also, liberating radioactive elements, mixing in with “produced water” and with natural gas liberated. Will I need a gigercounter for my kitchen stove??