Mar. 31—Will the double pull of agriculture and oilfield fracking eventually drain the Permian Basin of all its groundwater and necessitate the very expensive alternative of putting big desalination plants on the Gulf Coast and running pipelines here?
Waco economist Ray Perryman and officials of the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology say the energy industry is working hard to preserve as much fresh ground water as possible.
"Water always has been and always will be a topic of extreme and often heated interest and discussion," Perryman said. "Groundwater is being depleted in many areas and water rights are hotly contested.
"Although oil and gas activity accounts for substantial amounts of water use in the Permian Basin, the level being used by the energy industry is dwarfed by agriculture."
Perryman said how to allocate scarce water supplies "is a difficult question.
"The energy industry is pursuing ways to reduce fresh water usage such as enhancing re-use," he said. "Desalination facilities remain extremely expensive to construct and operate, but the economics are improving.
"Techniques to more effectively use brackish water are developing and innovative approaches to small-scale technologies that can be deployed in drilling locations are rapidly evolving. A number of initiatives are under way to ensure adequate future supplies and the Texas Legislature appears poised to provide substantial funds to help."
Perryman said it is a challenging scenario, "but the incentives to find solutions are high and the rewards great.
"Markets are made of such circumstances," he said.
A Bureau of Economic Geology spokesman said the cost of desalinating Gulf of Mexico water and piping it to the Basin for fracking or potable use "would be astronomical.
"The region needs a better option," the spokesman said.
A Bureau scientist added that it "would make more sense to desalinate produced water from the oil and gas fields.
"As an additional note, operators don't need to use fresh water anymore," said the scientist, who asked not to be named because his comments were off the cuff. "Some use treated produced water for fracking while others use fresh water because they are required to in the contracts they signed with landowners to access the hydrocarbons, possibly many years ago.
"It's also possible that some operators might strictly focus on short-term economics and whether fresh water is the cheapest option."