Quick Facts

  • Fracking does not take water away from the hydrologic cycle “forever” as some claim. Rather, the burning of natural gas generates water vapor and CO2, so that a typical well will return more water than it uses. Water that had been locked away underground for millions of years is added to the hydrologic cycle.
  • EPA’s Clean Water Rule defines navigable waters so as to regulate countless ephemeral drains, ditches, and “wetlands” that only contain water when it rains. Any development in or near these features will require a federal permit that can take years to obtain, if it’s ever issued at all.


Water is a precious resource across the West, and we as westerners have an interest in ensuring it is wisely used. Besides wanting to do what’s right, companies are highly motivated to conserve water because, unlike farmers and ranchers who have first-in-time water rights, they must purchase most of the water used in drilling and completions operations. Because the oil and natural gas industry both uses and produces water, companies are always looking for innovative ways to reduce water consumption, increase water re-use, and improve efficiency.


There are legitimate concerns about ensuring that oil and natural gas development protects ground and surface water, and that is why the industry is heavily regulated under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures rule, and state rules. Wells are carefully constructed and regulated to ensure that any fluids pumped into them, as well as the oil or natural gas coming out, do not leave the wellbore and contaminate underground sources of drinking water. Two to three alternating layers of steel pipe and cement are constructed in the well bore to keep fluids from migrating into drinking water aquifers.

Although there are risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, federal and state regulations are designed to minimize those risks to effectively protect water quality. The strict standards industry follows in its well construction, fracturing and flowback handling have led to an excellent environmental record, which has been scrutinized and confirmed again and again. In December 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its five-year  study on hydraulic fracturing, by far the most comprehensive to date. It draws from approximately 3,700 sources of scientific information and includes 20 new peer-reviewed studies. EPA concluded that there are no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water” from the hydraulic fracturing process. EPA did identify processes that could lead to drinking water impacts, but concluded that the number of identified cases of water resource impacts was very small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells. State regulations address those risks that EPA identified to ensure they are minimized.


Oil and natural gas operations consume a small amount of total water use when compared to other industrial sectors. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the entire mining sector, which includes coal, minerals, gravel, oil and natural gas, represents 1% of total water use nationally. For comparison, thermoelectric power plants accounted for 45% of total U.S. water use. Although fracking an individual well may require up to five million gallons of water, in context with other energy uses the amount is relatively low. See our Western Water Study for information on water use in each Rockies producing state. For example, only 0.08% of water use in Colorado is for hydraulic fracturing.

Produced Water

Oil and natural gas production generates large volumes of water that is otherwise trapped deep within the rock layers. Companies have traditionally re-injected this produced water into underground injection wells, but the amount of water used for horizontal wells has driven innovation in recycling and reuse. Recycling and reusing water cut out water hauling truck trips, reduce air quality impacts, and conserve freshwater.

EPA has developed a Produced Water Study to document how new water recycling techniques are hindered by regulatory barriers. The Ground Water Protection Council has also studied the issue and recommended techniques for increased water recycling and reuse. Industry is working with regulators to overcome these regulatory barriers so that companies can continue to innovate and further reduce freshwater use.  For more information on the ways companies are reducing water use, see our Source Rock Blog.