Fracking America’s Food Supply

By Walter Brasch

Fracking—the process the oil and gas industry uses to extract fossil fuel as much as two miles below the ground—may directly impact the nation’s water supply, reduce water-based recreational and sports activity, and lead to an increase in the cost of food.

The cocktail soup required for each well requires about two million pounds of silica sand, as much as 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals, and three to nine million gallons of fresh water. There are more than 500,000 active wells in the country.

In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Texas energy companies used about 26.5 billion gallons of water. Energy companies drilling Pennsylvania used the second greatest amount of water, followed by Colorado and Arkansas. Nuclear plants, which use more water, can recycle most of it. Because frack wastewater is toxic, oil and gas companies can’t recycle the contaminated water.

The water is provided by companies that draw up to three million gallons a day from rivers and lakes, by individuals who sell water from their ponds, and by municipalities. Steubenville, Ohio, is tapping one of its reservoirs to sell up to 700,000 gallons of water every day for five years to Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest players in the fracking industry.

However, fresh water is not unlimited.

Beginning about five years ago, the water in the nation’s aquifers has been decreasing significantly. The depletion since 2008, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. is about three times the rate as between 1900 through 2008.

Significant reductions in water availability are now common for the 1,450 mile long Colorado River, which provides water to about 40 million people in California and the southwest, including the agriculture-rich Imperial Desert of southeastern California. Lake Mead, a part of the Colorado system, provides water to Las Vegas and the Nevada desert communities; its water level is close to the point where the Department of the Interior will declare a water shortage and impose strict water-use regulation.

The depletion of the rivers, lakes, and aquifers is because of population growth, higher usage, climate change, and a severe drought that has spread throughout the Midwest and southwest for the past three years.

The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), basing its analysis upon more than 25,000 wells, reports almost 47 percent of wells that use fracking were developed in areas with high or extremely high water stress levels; 92 percent of all gas wells in Colorado are in extremely high-stressed regions; In Texas, 51 percent are in high or extremely high stress water regions.

Water is so critical to fracking that oil and gas companies have been paying premium prices, as much as $1,000–$2,000 for about 326,000 gallons (an acre foot) and outbidding farmers in the drought-ravaged parts of the country for the water; the normal price is about $30–$100 for the same amount. Oil and gas drillers have also been trucking in water to the Midwest and southwest from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The companies are “going to pay what they need to pay,” said Dr. Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.

If farmers have to pay more for water, they will raise the prices of their product. If they can’t get enough water, because the energy companies are taking as much as they can get, they grow fewer crops and reduce the size of their livestock herds; this, also, will force food prices up. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.

But, there are other problems. Some farmers and owners of corporate farms who have large water resources often sell that water to the energy companies; they can get more money for the water and leave their fields barren than they can get for growing crops and selling them to wholesalers and distributors.

Another reality may be driving food prices higher.

Fossil fuel mining and agriculture have always co-existed. But, that is changing.

Beneath about 200,000 square miles of North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan, lying between 4,500 and 7,500 feet below the surface of the earth, is the Bakken Shale. Oil in the shale was discovered in 1953; however, because the shale is only 13 to 140 feet thick, using conventional drilling methods were marginally profitable until five years ago with the development of horizontal fracking.

The Bakken Shale lies directly below one of the most fertile wheat fields in the United States. North Dakota farmers produce almost three-fourths of all amber durum harvested in the United States. High in protein and one of the strongest of all wheat, amber durum is a base for most of the world’s food production. It is used for all pastas, pizza crusts, couscous, and numerous kinds of breads. Red durum, a variety, is used to feed cattle. North Dakota farmers in late Summer harvest about 50 million bushels (about 1.4 million tons) of amber durum, almost three-fourths of all amber durum produced in the United States. About one-third of the production is exported, primarily to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Destruction of the wheat fields, from a combination of global warming and fracking, will cause production to decline, prices to rise, and famine to increase.

Energy company landmen, buying land and negotiating mineral rights leases, became as pesky as aphids in the wheat fields. However, the landmen didn’t have to do much sweet talking with the farmers, many of whom were hugging bankruptcy during the Great Recession. The farmers yielded parts of their land to the energy companies in exchange for immediate income and the promise of future royalties. By November 2012 there were 7,791 wells in North Dakota.

In 2006, oil production in the North Dakota fields was about 92 million gallons. Energy companies are expected to mine more than 15.2 billion gallons this year. Drilling for oil also yields natural gas; there are about two trillion barrels of natural gas in the shale.

In Pennsylvania, 17,000 acres have already been lost to the development of natural gas fracking. That land is not likely to be productive for several years because of “compaction and landscape reshaping,” according to a study by the Penn State Extension Office. U.S. Geological Survey scientists conclude there is a “low probability that the disturbed land will revert back to a natural state in the near future.”

The presence of natural gas drilling companies has also led to decreased milk and cheese production. Penn State researchers Riley Adams and Dr. Timothy Kelsey concluded: “Changes in dairy cow numbers also seem to be associated with the level of Marcellus shale drilling activity.” Counties with 150 or more Marcellus shale wells on average experienced an 18.7 percent decrease in dairy cows, compared to only a 1.2 percent average decrease in counties with no Marcellus wells.”

Beneath some of the nation’s richest agricultural land in drought-ravaged central California lies the Monterrey Shale, a 1,750 square mile formation that holds about two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale oil reserves, about 15.4 billion barrels (647 trillion gallons). The landmen have already arrived to buy leases and set up what is likely to be the biggest oil and gas boom in the country.

More than 200 different crops are grown in the central valley, including about 70 percent of the world’s supply of almonds, most of the grape production and 90 percent of all domestic wine sold in the United States. The Sun-Maid farm cooperative, headquartered in the Central Valley, is one of the world’s largest producers of raisins and dried fruits.
When the politicians unleashed Big Energy to frack the nation and extract gas, they parroted industry claims that extensive drilling would improve the economy, lower natural gas prices, and help make the United States energy independent from having to import foreign oil. What is happening is that the companies have purchased far too much land, are in heavy debt with the banks, and have a glut of natural gas that has forced the prices to the lowest level in almost 10 years.

The solution is that these patriotic corporations, to reduce the glut and force domestic residential prices back up as the mined gas becomes less available, are developing extensive plans to export natural gas to countries that will pay significantly higher prices than what is currently charged in the American market.

There is one problem. The United States can’t import water.

[Dr. Brasch’s current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at the impact of fracking upon public health, worker safety, the environment, and agriculture. The book--available at local bookstores and amazon. com--also looks at the financial collusion between politicians and Big Energy.]


Award-winning journalist and author, specializing in social issues, media, and pop culture.

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  1. I am reminded of a film titled “Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance”.

  2. Excellent article Walter.

    We just drove through Karnes City, Texas, in the Eagle Ford Shale area heavily into fracking and in one of Texas’ driest areas.

    In addition to all the water and environmental problems, one can see the wear and tear on the roads caused by the hundreds of trucks carrying water to and from the fracking sites daily.

    Here’s a related article

  3. Great article.

  4. The United States can’t import [fresh] water.

    But we can manufacture it. That’s essentially what a desalination plant does.

    It would be interesting to calculate the energy costs of desalinating and transporting the water needed by a given fracking operation and compare the result to the energy profits that it creates. I suspect we’d discover another corn/ethanol situation — a net loss of energy — but on a much larger scale.

    As is often the case, technology promises a solution that may never happen. Exotic materials like graphene may give us cheap desalination. Like fusion and AI, that possibility is “ten years away.”

  5. Good article Walter, we can live without oil, mankind did so for thousands of years, don’t think we can make it without clean water and the food it provides.

  6. It would be interesting to calculate the energy costs of desalinating and transporting the water needed by a given fracking operation and compare the result to the energy profits that it creates. I suspect we’d discover another corn/ethanol situation — a net loss of energy — but on a much larger scale.

    Here in Yuma we have a $250 million desalinization plant that was built in 1992 that until last year only ran for a few months, a few months TOTAL… In 21 years!

    But still it costs about $6 million a year to maintain in “reserve” status.

    Last year it ran at 1/3 capacity for 328 days.

    Yuma Desalting Plant Pilot Run Final Report (pdf file)
    The plant operated continuously for 328 days. No major equipment problems occurred during the run, and the plant’s performance confirmed the effectiveness of changes made to the plant while it was being maintained.
    The Pilot Run was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The run was completed about seven weeks prior to plan. This was the result of shakedown testing and plant stabilization which proved less challenging than expected; therefore, ramp up to one-third of full capacity operation required less time than anticipated. The cost was $15.97 million which includes preparing for the run, operating, and maintaining the plant during the run, and returning the plant to pre-run conditions once operations were concluded.

    Since then it’s been returned to ‘mothball’ status (@ $6 million per year) with no plans in sight to run it again.

  7. Ever since seeing videos of someones kitchen sink running water that was then, ignited with a match, I have been really hesitant to accept any real worth from the fracking industry.

    If we have learned anything from ecology and Climate science, is that we cannot continue to go great guns while extracting every ounce of fossil fuel from the earth—especially when relying on methods of extraction that leave other parts of the environment ravaged, and, as the article said, disrupts other resources like agricultural production and drinking water for human beings.

    When we continue to focus on any kinds of fossil fuels in order to become energy independent, we are ignoring the fact that a continued orgy of fossil fuel use will continue to have negative effects on the entire world’s environment. Energy independence doesn’t mean very much when we are shooting ourselves, our progeny, and our interdependence on the environment in foot with each progressive step!

    To me it has always seemed kind of like the old joke about sven and Ollie taking their row boat out on a lake. They become dismayed when noticing that they are now in the middle of the lake and that, their rowboat has sprung a leak that merely bailing water can’t keep them ahead of. “I know” says sven,”give me that drill and I’ll make another hole in the boat to let the water out!” For a while both men are ecstatic while thinking that they have chosen a logical course of action for getting rid of the water, but of course, their elation turns to panic as they notice that they are now only sinking twice as fast.

    The fossil fuels we burn in America, affect the entire worlds atmosphere, just like China’s manic industrial development is effecting the air quality of our environment. The big blue marble is really a closed system that we cannot keep on exploiting without suffering the eventual consequences for our foolhardy behavior.

    There will always be a need for carbon based fuels in a complicated and populated world like ours, but it is really time that we begin focusing on developing renewable energy resources with all of our might! Even Exxon Mobile has the ability to change its energy focus and invest heavily in alternative forms of energy—actually establishing itself as an energy giant in other fields as well. But whether we wake up to the fact that energy sufficiency will not save anyone’s environment forever—in a global community like ours—and we begin caring more about the health of future generations rather than continuing a failing status quo, and, instead, become rigorously involved in developing green energy, we will always end up like Sven and Ollie in their rowboat! we will never see the forest for the trees and be able to beat the reaper of environmental destruction!

    And as far as the presumed wise efforts of the CO2 industry, I have little faith in their motivation to really act as good stewards for the environment—Whenever, business chooses between profits and safety, their safety track records have proven to be dismally ignored. A case in point was the deliberate disregard shown by BP when maintaining the safety standards of its drilling operations. I have also read articles concerning the fact that the fracking industry claims to have solid science on its side to prove the safety of fracking operations. And,they claim that they can prove the process is a safe one—but there’s just one problem—They refuse to supply that proof to authorities when it has been requested. Would anyone feel comfortable buying a used rowboat from such people?

  8. We are up the creek without a paddle but it doesn’t matter because there is no water. Sorry, Sven and Ollie, you’ll have to walk.

    I still maintain that nuclear is the best way to generate electricity.

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