Hydraulic fracturing in water-stressed areas

May 28, 2015

A 2014 study by World Resources Institute found that more than 35 percent of U.S. shale resources are located in arid areas or locations under high or extremely high baseline water stress.

Current focuses on water scarcity issues around the world have left many water-intensive industries under scrutiny, particularly in the U.S. One such industry — oil and gas — has been a target because of its heavy water dependency.

Approximately 35,000 wells are completed using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the U.S. each year, a good number of which are in water scarce areas. A 2014 study by World Resources Institute found that more than 35 percent of U.S. shale resources are located in arid environments or in locations under high or extremely high baseline water stress, which has not only impacted our environment but our economy as well. In some areas, the stressed water supplies have resulted in banning the use of city water for fracking, costing the U.S. $1 billion on pipelines to secure fresh water sources — plus the cost of trucking water from up to 75 miles away.

The effects of these problems are felt more heavily in some regions than in others, for instance, in local communities suffering from a limited water supply and higher costs of obtaining the resource. However, innovations in technology have the potential to combat these issues. One such technology is atmospheric water generation (AWG). This equipment can reduce the draw on surface and municipal resources in water-starved locations and provide a cost-effective way for drillers to continue their operations without being a drain on local resources.

What is AWG?

AWG extracts water directly from water vapor that exists in the air, transforming humidity into an abundant source of clean water at or near the point-of-use/distribution. Using a refrigeration-based process, moist air is passed over a cold surface, which condenses the moisture into droplets that are captured, filtered, sterilized and stored for use. The air is chilled to the dew point, and the moisture is condensed and filtered to a point of purity that could be safe for consumption.

Water can be produced using 100 percent outside air in areas with humidity levels as low as 40 percent. Most systems run on simple electricity and only need modest maintenance consisting of filter changes and general cleaning. They provide a simple “plug-and-play” water generator, which for the most part is self-operable and maintainable.

What it means for oil and gas

Three to five million gallons of water are often used to frack one well, and because natural water resources are not always readily available at locations primed for fracking and drilling, installing AWG technology on site can provide a source of clean water without taking a toll on the environment. The technology can be especially useful in areas already suffering from water scarcity, such as California, where fracking is currently taking a lot of heat due to because of its water usage.

The study by World Resources Institute also noted that shale plays in the West, including California, Texas and Colorado, are located in areas of higher competition for water, and 10 of those places sit atop aquifers that are being withdrawn at rates far exceeding their natural recharge rate. For example, Texas is currently in a drought and is dealing with whether to tap into the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer as a last resort.

Fortunately, AWG can be implemented commercially on a wide scale. AWG equipment can be set up on-site early in the well development process. The accumulated water may be stored in tanks or lined pits for later use in the fracking process. These systems can produce 400 to 3,000 gallons of water per day, with others in development that could produce up to 20,000 gallons of water per day. The units may be daisy chained together to produce many more thousands of gallons per day, near 100,000.

This technology can supplement and, in some cases, replace the original source of water used to frack a well, preserving local water supplies and resources in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.


  1. http://exploreshale.org/.
  2. Malewitz, Jim. “Researchers, Water Providers Launch Conservation Effort,” http://www.texastribune.org/2015/04/09/researchers-water-providers-launch-conservation-ef/, April 9, 2015.
  3. Reig, Paul; Luo, Tianyi; and Proctor, Jonathan N. “Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability & Business Risks,” http://www.wri.org/publication/global-shale-gas-development-water-availability-business-risks, September 2014.
  4. Satija, Neena.“Aquifer Is No Quick Fix for Central Texas Thirst,” http://www.texastribune.org/2014/09/12/aquifer-is-no-quick-fix-for-central-texas-thirst/, Sept. 12, 2014.
  5. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/04/06/3643184/california-70-million-gallons-fracking/.

Keith White is the founder and CEO of Ambient Water, an atmospheric water generation technology company providing solutions that produce water from the humidity in the air. Its flagship systems include the Ambient Water 400, which is capable of producing up to 400 gallons of clean water per day. 

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