Water Availability is Critical Piece of Shale Resources Puzzle

As the development of shale resources ramps up across the globe, the availability of fresh water (or rather the lack thereof) is likely to present some significant challenges. Such is the gist of the new report, "Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability & Business Risks," from the World Resources Institute, which examined freshwater availability worldwide and found that commercial shale development on most every continent could be affected by water stress.


As the development of shale resources ramps up across the globe, the availability of fresh water (or rather the lack thereof) is likely to present some significant challenges. That's the gist of a new report from the World Resources Institute, a global research organization that spans more than 50 countries.

The WRI report, "Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability & Business Risks," examined freshwater availability across shale resources worldwide and found that commercial shale development on every continent -- with the exception of Antarctica -- could be affected by water stress.

To evaluate water availability and the associated business risks for shale development, WRI used seven indicators: water stress, water-supply variation among months of the year, drought severity, groundwater depletion rates, largest water user, population density, and depth of shale reserve.

Researchers looked at the 20 countries with the largest shale resources and found that in 40% of them, future shale production "could happen in arid conditions or under high water stress."

In China, for example, the research showed that while there are significant shale resources, most of them (about 60%) are found in areas of high water stress or arid conditions.

In the UK, which is Europe's third largest natural gas producer, about 34% of shale resources are located in areas of high water stress and population density poses added challenges around access to water by industry.

It's important to note that the report does not aim to assess the water management practices of the oil and gas industry -- nor does it make any claims about the water quality impact of shale production. It's goal, rather, is to raise awareness of the impact of water availability on the development of shale resources and to make water part of the ongoing dialog.

"With many countries already facing arid conditions and high water stress around the globe, this report can help to ensure that there's enough water available for industries, farms, and people, even if shale development advances," said Paul Reig, an associate at WRI and the report's lead author.

The report does offer four practical recommendations for evaluating and sustainably managing the availability of water resources with regard to shale resource development:

  1. Conduct water risk assessments to understand local water availability and reduce business risk.
  2. Increase transparency and engage with local regulators, communities, and industry to minimize uncertainty.
  3. Ensure adequate water governance to guarantee water security and reduce regulatory and reputational risks.
  4. Minimize freshwater use and engage in corporate water stewardship to reduce impacts on water availability.

"It's important for my colleagues and friends in industry to read [the report]," said Dr. Cal Cooper, Director of Special Projects and Emerging Technologies, Apache Corporation, "and to appreciate and understand that we have a lot to collaborate on as an industry to minimize the impact hydraulic fracturing will have on freshwater resources."

Dr. Cooper said that at Apache, for example, they have been working on using recycled frack water (i.e., produced water) in subsequent hydraulic fracturing operations.

"We've worked very hard to map the subsurface distribution of brackish and saline water that can be used instead of using fresh water," he added. "We have to make sure we're not competing with freshwater resources, especially where they're scarce."

If you are interested in reading the WRI report, "Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability & Business Risks," please visit www.wri.org.

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