Persistent Drought Threatens Texas Oil Industry

Crippling drought and booming industry don't go hand-in-hand — or at least they can't for long.

That's what Texas industry leaders and policymakers are remembering right now as the state grapples with the question of how to maintain economic growth in the midst of its worst dry spell on record.

The bone-dry conditions of the past ten months have destroyed an estimated $5.2 billion worth of crops and livestock in Texas and have helped spread wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes and millions of acres of land.

The state's oil industry hasn't taken an equivalent hit — yet. But oil companies are looking for innovative ways to secure the millions of gallons of water required for oil and natural gas drilling, which grows more difficult as municipalities begin to place limits on local water withdrawals.

The problem is worst for companies that practice the drilling method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which an estimated 3 to 10 million gallons of chemical-laced water a year are blasted deep into each shale-rich oil well to release natural gas.

Fracking has stirred controversy in towns across the country largely because of fear that it contaminates drinking water. But in Texas, where the vast majority of oil wells have been fracked, it's the industry's water-sucking tendency that has become a divisive issue. In August the town of Grand Prairie, in the northern part of the state, became the first in Texas to enact a ban on the use of water for fracking.

As a result of laws like the one in Grand Prairie, many companies must scramble to find water in new ways. Some companies have trucked water across city lines. Others have added costly infrastructure that enables recycling or reduced water use. Still others have purchased water from farmers — an option that becomes less viable as drought persists.

Such adaptation will need to continue. Experts predict the state's dry spell will last a long time — perhaps 20 more years, says John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State climatologist. Looking further down the road, the state's population is expected to nearly double in the next 50 years, a situation that would drastically increase demand for water and exhaust its supply.

"We do not have enough existing water supplies today to meet demand for water during times of drought," reads the Texas State Water Plan , which recommends that the state spend $231 billion on water infrastructure by 2060 to retain and replenish its existing water supply.

This November, Texans will decide whether to begin that process. They will vote on Proposition 2 , which would authorize the state's water planning agency to invest in up to $6 billion worth of infrastructure upgrades using money lent from a bond fund.

The proposition has support from a variety of business and environmental groups, Texas Tribune reports , but it could see opposition from the state's Tea Party faction. "I do know we need to reserve water supplies and do that type of work, but there is some question as to whether this level of bonded indebtedness is a good idea," Mike Openshaw, co-founder of the North Texas Tea Party, told the Tribune .


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