Discussion Paper

Water Resources and Unconventional Fossil Fuel Development: Linking Physical Impacts to Social Costs


The production of crude oil and natural gas from unconventional reservoirs has become a growth sector within the North American energy industry, and current projections indicate that the production of some of these unconventional fossil fuels will continue accelerating in the foreseeable future. This shift in the energy industry has been accompanied by rising concerns over potential impacts on water resources because producing these fuels is thought to require more water per unit of energy produced than conventional sources and may lead to greater degradation of water quality. In this paper, we address these emerging environmental issues by (a) providing a comprehensive overview of the existing literature on the water quantity and quality implications of producing the main unconventional fossil fuels in North America and (b) characterizing the differences in social costs that arise from the extraction and production of these fuels versus those from conventional fossil fuel production.