How Much Water Does Hydraulic Fracturing Use?

Environmental groups have historically and continuously looked for ways to attack affordable, reliable sources of energy like natural gas and oil. Much of their recent attack has focused on hydraulic fracturing because the term “fracking” makes it sound like it is a bad thing. But now some groups are calling attention to the “hydraulic” part of hydraulic fracturing by claiming that hydraulic fracturing uses too much water, even though water has been used in the process for decades.

One example is the Wall Street investor activist group Ceres. (For more on Ceres, see this post about how they are promoting doubling electricity rates for many Americans).  Ceres recently released a report which argues that hydraulic and horizontal drilling technologies are having a “significant impact on water availability, particularly in already water stressed regions of the country.” That sounds concerning, just as it is intended to by the anti-affordable energy group, but according to a recent study by the Western Energy Alliance, water used for oil and natural gas activities constitutes less than 1 percent of the total water used in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. That certainly isn’t a “significant impact.”

The Big Picture of Water Usage

Here’s a chart from EPA on U.S. freshwater withdrawals to put water use in context:  

Natural gas and oil development is included in the “Industrial” category. The numbers above are from all states, not just the western states with energy production that the Western Energy Alliance looked at. They found that the agriculture industry was by far the largest user of water in each of the Western states included in the study, and used at least half the water in all the states included in the study. If Ceres and other groups are concerned about natural gas and oil development using 1 percent of water in these states, why are they not shouting about agriculture using 50 percent of the water? It appears this may be one more example of environmental groups trying to demonize the production of affordable, reliable energy.

The chart from Western Energy Alliance’s data shows the water use of agriculture versus natural gas and oil activities:

State % of Water Used for Agriculture % of Water Used for all Industrial Activities including Oil and Gas
Colorado 56.1% 0.8%
New Mexico 73% 0.3%
Wyoming 88.9%* 2.2%*




*Wyoming tracks their water usage by river basin. The numbers above reflects the average percentage of all the river basins.

While natural gas and oil activities use water, it’s also helpful to look at other large industrial uses of water for comparison. For example, the Western Energy Alliance report listed the largest individual industrial users of water in Colorado which included Coors Brewing Company, Colorado Steel Company, and golf courses, all of which use more water than a typical hydraulic fracturing operation, and further shows the lack of context used by groups criticizing water use from oil and gas.

Water Usage and Job Creation

Not only does hydraulic fracturing use a small amount of all the water consumed, but it also creates more high paying jobs per gallon than other sources of energy and agriculture. Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the U.S. Census, federal agencies, and industry reports, Energy In Depth compared the number of jobs that are created per 5,000,000 gallons of water used: 

They found that water usage for hydraulic fracturing in deep shale, creates nearly five jobs, while solar power only creates four, golf courses create two, nuclear power half a job, and agriculture hardly creates any jobs with that amount of water usage. The point is not that natural gas and oil production is “better” than other parts of the economy, but that natural gas and oil production create real jobs with the water it uses. Water used for hydraulic fracturing is not wasted, but it is being used to put people to work while simultaneously lowering the cost of energy, which serves the as the key to the engine of economic growth.


It is important to look at water use in context. On its face, the average of 5,000,000 gallons per drilling operation sounds like a lot, but the as the chart above shows, natural gas and oil production accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage in many states.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are technologies that have radically improved the prospect for home-grown natural gas and oil production. For forty years, U.S. Presidents have talked about how energy independence is just around the corner. The only thing that has actually made energy independence an achievable reality is hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling. But because this technology is providing affordable, reliable energy, anti-energy groups are trying to stop it. These attacks are not about water, they are about limiting access to energy.

The Earth itself does not lack for water. About 71 percent of the surface of the Earth is covered by water. The biggest factor limiting our ability to get water to where it is needed is energy and bad government policies. If green groups did not oppose building more water infrastructure and storage in California, and if we had enough affordable energy, we could store and desalinate enough water so that the California drought would not be a problem.  The real limiting factor is not water—it’s affordable energy.

IER Policy Associate John Glennon authored this post.

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