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A fracking site in Texas. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The amount of water needed for new oil and gas wells developed via fracking has surged in recent years — and it's slated to keep rising — Duke University researchers conclude in a new paper.

Why it matters: It underscores resource challenges, especially in arid regions like West Texas that accompany the decade-old boom in fracking and horizontal drilling, which has pushed U.S. oil and gas production to record levels.

  • The study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances looks at data for wells developed between 2011 and 2016 in major shale oil and gas regions.

What they're saying: "Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking," Duke earth scientist Avner Vengosh said in a statement.

  • The extraction technique, which unlocks hydrocarbons trapped in shale rock formations, involves high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals.

The details: Water use per well grew by up to 770% as the length of lateral wells has expanded, although the increase varies by region and was most pronounced in the booming Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico.

  • Volumes of salty groundwater water that comes out of fracked wells — called flowback and produced (FP) water — in the first year of production have grown by up to 1,440%.
  • Salts, "toxic elements" and other materials in this flowback water "pose contamination risks to local ecosystems from spills and mismanagement," the paper states.
  • Threat level: "The predicted increasing water use and FP water production in the Permian and Eagle Ford basins are alarming given the extreme water scarcity in these regions," the paper warns.

What's next: Looking out to 2030, cumulative volumes of water for developing wells and the amount of FP water could grow by up to 50-fold in gas-producing shale regions and up to 20-fold in shale oil regions — although there are a lot of variables at play.

The bottom line: "As unconventional gas and oil exploration is expanding globally and other countries begin to follow the U.S. shale revolution (for example, China) ... the results of this study should be used as guidance for the expected water footprint of hydraulic fracturing at different stages of energy development," the study concludes.

Go deeper

House passes sweeping election and anti-corruption bill

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

The House voted 220-210Wednesday to pass Democrats' expansive election and anti-corruption bill.

Why it matters: Expanding voting access has been a top priority for Democrats for years, but the House passage of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) comes as states across the country consider legislation to rollback voting access in the aftermath of former President Trump's loss.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

The House voted 220 to 212 on Wednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans plan to exact pain before COVID relief vote

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.