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Report: Surge in fracking endangers Montana’s most-stressed water supplies

Posted at 2:37 PM, Nov 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-18 16:37:16-05

With climate change putting Montana’s future water supplies in question, an increase in the number of fracking wells could endanger what water remains, according to a new report.

The Center for American Progress released a report this week suggesting that the recent surge in sales of oil and gas leases on public land could lead to fracking consuming large amounts of water in some of the more water-stressed areas of the West.

Using the Aquaduct Water Risk Altas produced by the World Resources Institute, analysts superimposed polygons depicting five levels of water stress – low to extremely high – in six Western states over sites where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has offered more than 5,500 leases since January 2017.

The resulting maps indicated that almost two-thirds of leases in the six states have been offered in regions of high or extremely high water stress.

  • In Montana, about 57% of 815 recent leases were found to occur in areas of extremely high water stress. The region of extremely high water stress extends from Wyoming into southeastern Montana and covers most of Big Horn, Rosebud, Custer and Powder River counties where the BLM opened two large blocks of lease sites.

That’s less of a problem if oil and gas companies are drilling conventionally. But most of the oil and gas under the hundreds of parcels put out for bid in eastern Montana would require fracking technology, which is water intensive.

According to a 2015 U.S. Geological Survey study , fracking requires about 10 million gallons of water per well, on average. That’s about 28 times the amount of water required to frack wells in 2000; the increase reflects the fact that companies are drilling deeper and longer wells and extracting oil and gas from more difficult substrates.

Not every parcel is leased, and even leased sites are not always developed right away; leases are good for 10 years. But each parcel can evolve into a vast network of cell pads, and a cell pad can be home to five or 10 wells. So developing even one parcel can cause a huge depletion of local fresh water supplies.

“The expansion of fossil fuel development on U.S. public lands could endanger the quantity and quality of water that is available to farmers, towns and other water users in the region,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea , Center for American Progress senior policy analyst and author of the analysis, in a statement.

It can also take a toll on fish and wildlife that are important to Montana’s outdoor heritage and which bring millions of tourist dollars into the state. That’s why the Montana Wildlife Federation expressed concern after learning of the Center for American Progress report.

In a blog post , the Montana Wildlife Federation said, “For species like the greater sage-grouse, that depend on riparian areas or wet meadows in late summer, continued leasing offered in extremely high water-stressed areas is a threat to their survival. Montana’s already-stressed water resources are too precious to risk for oil and gas development.”

In Montana, groups have sued the BLM to stop some of the recent lease sales partially because of possible threats to groundwater.

Attorneys for the Western Organization of Resource Councils say the BLM failed to prepare an environmental assessment to consider the effects of possible groundwater contamination in addition to greenhouse-gas emissions. They have argued for a hold on any new leases, particularly in the Powder River basin, until the BLM updates its decades-old resource management plans with new information on pollution and climate change.

Prior to the Center for American Progress report, the 2015 USGS study had already concluded that fracking’s water requirements posed a greater threat to arid regions, which often need more water for the process because of their geology. It’s just that the USGS didn’t quantify how many sites in the West posed a threat.

In the arid regions of northern Colorado and Montana, fracking can use more than 9 million gallons of water, while in the Midwest where the shale areas are closer to the surface, such as southern Illinois, which is also more humid, fracking can require as little as 2,600 gallons per well.

The drain could become worse as climate change worsens.

The average annual temperature in Montana has already warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years and will continue to increase. For now, average annual precipitation hasn’t fallen off but the cycle has changed – now more comes in the form of rain instead of snow and it comes at different times of the year than in the past.

Former University of Montana climate scientist said last year that Montana would need at least one additional inch of precipitation to compensate for future temperature increases.

“If you take two weeks out of our snowpack season, that’s adding two weeks to the growing season, but the crucial question is, ‘Do we have water or not?’” Running said.

With less snowpack keeping the rivers flowing and recharging groundwater in summer, farmers and ranchers could suffer losses from that alone. Add fracking into the mix and Montana’s agricultural industry could falter at the hands of the oil and gas industry.

The state of New York banned fracking in 2015 out of concerns about water pollution and overuse, along with the contribution of methane to greenhouse gases. But no such bans exist in the West.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at