(CN) – As the Permian Basin region in Texas and New Mexico continues to experience a historic oil boom, a new study has found that water usage for hydraulic fracturing has increased nearly ninefold in the semi-arid region over a five-year period.
A team of researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment conducted the study that was published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.
It looks at water usage in six oil and gas-producing regions across the United States from 2011 to 2016.
According to the study, the Permian Basin used 42,500 cubic meters per hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, well in 2016 – the most water of all the regions – and experienced an increase of nearly 800 percent of water usage per fracking well during the study period.
The region, located in west Texas and east New Mexico, has seen a rapid increase in oil and gas production since 2011. It is currently the biggest shale oil producing region in the nation and is estimated to become the third-biggest oil producer in the world behind Russia and Saudi Arabia, according to a June estimate from London-based HIS Markit. The region’s output is expected to double from 2017 to 2023 to about 3 million barrels a day.
This boom has caused a spike in fracking, a process that helps spur the production of gas by drilling into a rock formation, like shale rock, and pumping large quantities of water mixed with chemicals and sand at high pressure to create new “fractures.”
The process requires the use of large amounts of water, but it also affects the quality of the water—which is becoming more of a scarce resource in an area that’s prone to droughts and wildfires.
The Duke study found that in addition to an increase in water use, the salty groundwater that results from the fracking process – known as flowback and produced water – has increased by up to 1,440 percent.
Flowback and produced water, or FP water, has high levels of salts that include toxic materials and naturally occurring radioactive material, which could threaten ecosystems with spills and is extremely expensive to treat, according to the study.
The two regions with the largest increase in FP water are in Texas—the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford region in south Texas.
In 2016, the Permian Basin was producing about 80,000 cubic meters of FP water per well, up significantly from an estimated 15,000 cubic meters in 2011.
The Eagle Ford region had a 610 percent increase in its oil-bearing section and an increase of 1,440 percent in the gas-bearing section. In 2016, it was producing about 20,000 cubic meters of FP water per well.
The study called this increase “alarming given the extreme water scarcity in these regions.”
Ruthie Redmond, the water resources program manager for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, told the San Antonio Express-News she was concerned that the increase means oil and gas companies are pumping more groundwater, which could dry up the wells of the region’s residents.
“The numbers are astounding,” said Redmond. “Once you start commercializing groundwater resources, which is what we’re seeing with fracking, that’s when you get into these huge numbers that aren’t regulated as tightly as they need to be.”
The study says on a national level, the amount of water usage for fracking is comparable to other industrial water uses, but that’s different at the local level.
“On a local scale, however, water use for hydraulic fracturing can cause conflicts over water availability, especially in arid regions such as western United States, where water supplies are limited,” the study said.
The findings were released at a time when most of Texas is experiencing a drought, including large parts of the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford regions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.