Oct 15 9:00 PM

What happens when the wells run dry in West Texas?

West Texas water
In some small towns in West Texas, residents are concerned that fracking operations are using too much of the area's limited water supply.
America Tonight

The West Texas oil boom has brought jobs and riches to the region, and renewed hopes of American energy independence. But it’s also sucking the land dry.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has tapped oil reserves long-thought unreachable, but it also uses far more water. Conventional drilling involved around 100,000 gallons per drill; the new drilling requires 3 to 8 million gallons per frack. This is placing enormous stress on a stretch of the country already deeply parched by years of drought.

Beverly McGuire is a 35-year resident of Barnhart, Texas. The town, with a population of 92, now sees 300 trucks drive through every hour. After her own well went dry, McGuire borrowed $1,500 from the bank to buy a water meter, so she could get hooked up to the town’s supply.

“And the month I got that paid off at the bank, I got up and I turned the water on,” she told America Tonight, “and that’s when I went, ‘Oh my God. The town’s out of water.’”

She added: “It’s very heartbreaking. You’ve done the best you knew how, and it wasn’t enough.”

There’s another reason for McGuire to be pessimistic: Water used in fracking is so contaminated with chemicals and other minerals that without an expensive cleanup, it can never be used again, for anything.

Hydraulic fracturing is actually the reason that Texas and the rest of the nation are doing so well. - Debbra Hastings, Texas Oil and Gas Association

Fracking companies don’t need to drill with fresh water; brackish water, recycled water and gases like propane work as well. But it’s more expensive. In response to criticisms, the gas industry maintains that it uses only one percent of the water in Texas and, in compensation, added $12 billion to state coffers last year in taxes and royalties.

“Hydraulic fracturing is actually the reason that Texas and the rest of the nation are doing so well,” Debbra Hastings of the Texas Oil and Gas Association told America Tonight.

Jeremy Osborne is the general counsel for Alpha Reclaim Technology, a company that is trying to whittle down that number by purchasing treated municipal wastewater and then selling to oil and gas companies for fracking. He doesn’t deny that that oil and gas companies use only a tiny fraction of the freshwater statewide.

“But on a local basis it can have a very acute impact,” he told America Tonight, noting that in Karnes County, Texas, the town's oil and gas production accounts for 54 percent of water use.

If they were able to recycle every drop of wastewater like this, Osborne says, they could save the state 7.6 billion gallons of freshwater a year.

“We’re just bypassing the use of freshwater,” he explains, “and encouraging its preservation for future generations.”

Video by Debora Silva and Serene Fang


Dirty Power, Oil

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter