It takes a good deal of water to drill a Niobrara oil well. Water is required to make the drilling fluid, or mud, that controls downhole pressure, and it is used to flush cuttings to the surface.
But the biggest consumptive use of water in the process is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In this process a mixture of water, sand and some chemicals is pumped into the wellbore under high pressure to crack open the oil–bearing shale or chalk and stimulate the flow of hydrocarbons.
Farmers in Wyoming have recently caught on to the fact that it is far more profitable to sell water from their existing water rights to the oil industry drillers exploring wells into the Niobrara oil formation. Selling the water for 35 cents a barrel is 10-times what a farmer could earn off his water when he uses it for irrigation.
Despite the state’s insistence that the diversion of irrigation water for oil drilling is a zero-sum game, it might not necessarily work out that way. If the oil industry continues buying, an irrigator may actually sell more than he would have pulled from the aquifer during a normal year.
This outstanding article highlights the growing “water vs energy” debate with dire consequences on our already strapped water resources as well as long term effects on agricultural outputs.