The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Times’ Reality vs. Times’ Water Fight Narrative

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted September 6, 2012

The New York Times tries to gin up a fight over water resources between Colorado farmers and oil and natural gas companies – but ultimately the article defuses itself as readers learn that:  a) the amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing oil and gas wells is small compared to other state uses; and b) money paid to localities by energy companies for water is a pretty valuable revenue stream.  

The Times starts by setting a scene:

"A new race for water is rippling through the drought-scorched heartland, pitting farmers against oil and gas interests, driven by new drilling techniques that use powerful streams of water, sand and chemicals to crack the ground and release stores of oil and gas."

Sounds pretty dramatic, no? The article goes on to say that it takes up to 5 million gallons of water to frack a new well and depicts a contest for scarce resources that’s been exacerbated by summer drought – oil and gas operators vs. beleaguered farmers. But then the story starts to walk that back:

"Energy producers do not — and cannot — simply snap up the rights to streams and wells at the expense of farmers or homeowners. To fill their storage tanks, they lease surplus water from cities or buy treated wastewater that would otherwise be dumped back into rivers. In some cases, they buy water rights directly from farmers or other users — a process that in Colorado requires court approval. 'This is an important use of our water — to produce energy, which is the foundation of all we do,' said Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. 'Think about the big users of water — agriculture, industrial development. All these things require energy.'"

Indeed, the Times article talks about big users of water in Colorado and guess what: Energy operations are the little guys compared to agriculture. The Times:

"Oil and gas companies estimate that they will use about 6.5 billion gallons of water in Colorado this year, and that figure makes up only 0.1 percent of overall water use, according to state data. Their consumption represents more water than is used making snow on the ski slopes or greening the state’s golf courses. But it is paltry compared with the deluge needed for irrigation and agriculture, which accounts for 85.5 percent of Colorado’s water use."

Worth repeating: Energy development accounts for one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s overall water use – minuscule compared to water usage for irrigation and agriculture (85.5 percent). It’s understandable that a dry, western state would devote 85 percent of its water to irrigation and agriculture, yet the Times’ “race for water” isn’t much of a contest – 85.5 percent to 0.1 percent.

Colorado’s stats are consistent with those described by the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, discussing water use for oil and natural gas fracking in the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) that serves Fort Worth and other cities:

TRWD reported that the water that they provided, as a percentage of the total water they sold, was just 0.96 percent in 2009, even less at 0.66 percent in 2010, and just 0.54 percent in 2011.

And a 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy by the Ground Water Protection Council:

"While these volumes may seem very large, they are small by comparison to some other uses of water, such as agriculture, electric power generation, and municipalities, and generally represent a small percentage of the total water resource use in each shale gas area. Calculations indicate that water use for shale gas development will range from less than 0.1% to 0.8% of total water use by basin."

Back to Colorado and Part B: revenue. The Times reports that in some parts of the state oil and natural gas companies are paying as much as $1,000 to $2,000 for an acre foot of water (about 326,000 gallons). Localities see the revenue benefits. Aurora, a Denver suburb, approved:

"…a $9.5 million deal to lease 2.4 billion gallons of effluent water to the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation over five years. It did not come from drinking supplies. It was excess water that “we couldn’t capture, couldn’t store, couldn’t do anything with,” said Greg Baker, a spokesman for the city’s water department."

And Greeley, Colo:

"For years, Greeley has leased its surplus water to farmers, construction companies and others. In 2008, the oil and gas companies started making offers, said Jon Monson, the city’s water and sewer director. Most of the water still goes to agriculture, but the city rented 1,300 acre feet to energy companies last year and is on pace to rent 1,800 acre feet — as much as 586 million gallons — this year. It is easy math for the city: The farmers pay $30 an acre foot. The oil and gas companies pay $3,300, which will earn the city’s water department $4 million to $5 million this year."

For the Times, it’s a story that doesn’t quite fill the shoes of its dramatic headline, a narrative unsupported by reality.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.