Energy v. Water: The Shale Energy Question

A report from the World Resources Institute shows that 38% of the world’s shale oil and gas resources are located in areas under high water stress. The report, Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability and Business Risks, comes at a time when natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing has come under scrutiny in the U.S., especially in its use of fresh water. Many of the countries with the largest shale gas resources are in the difficult situation of balancing their water needs and taking advantage of an energy resource that could potentially accelerate their development. Among these countries are Pakistan, China, India, South Africa and Mexico.

The potential for these resources is huge: according to the report, known shale gas deposits add 47% to technically recoverable natural gas resources worldwide.  However, more “intense” extraction methods are required to remove fossil fuels from shale rock, which often means more water and energy are consumed— and more waste created— for each unit of gas or oil extracted from shale versus more conventional deposits.


WRI looks at water availability and shale resource development from a global perspective, then zeros in on water availability in each shale play in 11 countries selected based on the size of technically recoverable shale resources, current exploration and production activities, likelihood of future development, and information from experts in the industry, non-governmental organizations and academia.

Among their key findings is that 38% of shale resources is in arid or high water stress areas, 19% are in areas the experience high or extremely high seasonal variability in water availability and 15% are in areas with severe or extremely severe drought.  Also, in many areas, oil and gas development must compete with other demands for water supplies.  Ultimately, this means that shale development could be curtailed in many areas due to lack of water availability.

WRI concludes with four major recommendations—most of which have roles for both the companies and governments.

  • Conduct water risk assessments
  • Increase transparency and collaborate with local regulators, communities and industry to better understand the local hydrologic conditions and regulatory framework
  • Advocate for or work to develop adequate water governance that provides regulatory certainty and increases water security
  • Minimize use of freshwater

Read the executive summary of report (4MB PDF)
Read the full report (12MB PDF)

Written by Stratecon Staff