Regulating water security in unconventional oil and gas (R. Buono, E. López-Gunn, J. McKay and C. Staddon, 2019)

Douglas Robb

HD Buono, R.M.; Gunn, E.L.; McKay, J. and Staddon, C. (Eds). 2019. Regulating water security in unconventional oil and gas. Springer International Publishing. Hardcover ISBN: 978-3-030-18341-7, 418 p., €124.79..


Douglas Robb

Department of Geography, University of British Columbia;


To cite this Review: Douglas, R. 2020. Review of "Regulating water security in unconventional oil and gas", Springer, 2019, edited by R. Buono, E. López-Gunn, J. McKay and C. Staddon, Water Alternatives,


Over the past decade, there has been a rapid expansion in the use of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional oil and gas extraction. Initially developed in the United States as a way to extract oil and gas from 'tight' bedrock formations, hydraulic fracturing (or 'fracking') now extends to virtually every corner of the globe. This rapid increase has raised concerns relating to the direct and indirect impacts that hydraulic fracturing poses to water resources. The average volume of water consumed by fracking operations is vast: as much as 1.3 million cubic metres per day in the United States, or "3.5 times the average daily water use of Washington, D.C." (p. 90). Concerns surrounding water consumption and the risks of potential groundwater contamination are particularly urgent in areas suffering from acute water stress, or where reliable access to water is already precarious. This has led to a growing awareness of the inadequacy of existing regulatory frameworks to effectively manage the demands that fracking operations place on water resources. Included in these concerns are issues pertaining to the environmental and sociocultural impacts of water use for hydraulic fracturing, such as induced seismicity, air pollution, and the degradation of ecosystems and landscapes essential to Indigenous and non-indigenous ways of life.

Regulating Water Security in Unconventional Oil and Gas addresses these issues through an international review and analysis of water governance in the context of unconventional oil and gas extraction. Essentially, the book is about the passage of water through the various material and logistical stages of hydraulic fracturing—from procurement, transportation, processing, injection, recovery, and occasionally remediation—as well as the people, landscapes, and ecologies implicated in the fracking process. The ultimate goal of Regulating Water is to navigate the various legal and regulatory regimes that govern how water is used for oil and gas extraction, and to suggest opportunities to enhance water security.

As the book makes abundantly clear, the regulation of water for hydraulic fracturing is far from straightforward. Approaches to water governance vary greatly depending on the political, economic, social, environmental, and geomorphological variables specific to each site of extraction; effective governance becomes even more complex in multijurisdictional and transboundary settings typical of large watersheds and oil and gas deposits. In an attempt to navigate this complexity, the editors take a decidedly interdisciplinary approach focusing on 24 hydrocarbon-producing regions around the world. The stated purpose of this approach is to "glean insights into common difficulties and best practices to develop and advance the interests of all stakeholders, including the natural environment and present and future generations" (p. 397). While the book certainly succeeds as an impressive feat of comparative research, I argue that its commitment to the advancement of hydraulic fracturing also constitutes a potential point of weakness.

Regulating Water is divided into 5 sections: an Introduction that addresses key conceptual themes and current debates; topics relating to water access and procurement; issues surrounding wastewater disposal; regional perspectives on water regulation; and a Conclusion that summarizes contemporary regulatory challenges and offers recommendations for improvement. Each section (except the Conclusion) consists of 4-6 chapters written by a leading expert in the field of water security or unconventional oil and gas from both academia and the private sector. This diversity of contributors is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.

Given that the United States currently leads the world in the development and mobilization of hydraulic fracturing technologies, it is no surprise that the current academic literature is predominantly focused on the North American (and to a lesser extent western European) context. This emphasis on Euro-American perspectives—often to the exclusion of other geographic contexts—not only represents a kind of intellectual myopia, but also poses a serious obstacle to the development of generalizable policy frameworks that can be adapted to different political, social, and environmental contexts. Regulating Water does a commendable job of addressing this gap in the literature by foregrounding diverse research methodologies and geographic case studies that are reflective of the heterogeneous realities of unconventional oil and gas extraction around the world. Ten of the book’s twenty chapters focus on case studies outside of Western Europe and the United States, and all four of the Introductory chapters are framed from an international perspective.

Individual chapters vary with respect to their conceptual contributions and written quality; some provide rather descriptive accounts of regulatory procedures, while others offer valuable critical insights grounded in first-hand industry experience or longstanding research projects. Certain portions of the book will be familiar to researchers engaged in topics of hydraulic fracturing and water governance—particularly the repetitive definitions of hydraulic fracturing itself. As one reads through the multiple accounts of unconventional oil and gas extraction presented in the book, it becomes increasingly apparent that threats to water resources often do not stem from the absolute availability of water, "but rather its location relative to demand hotspots" (p. 108). The most successful chapters are those which are able to connect abstract and legalistic discourses on water and energy regulation to urgent issues concerning human rights (Chapter 3), the political legitimation of oil and gas extraction (Chapter 8), or the socioecological threats posed by hydraulic fracturing to the traditional cultural practices of Indigenous peoples (Chapters 9 and 15).

The book concludes with a summary of common issues concerning the regulation and management of water resources in unconventional oil and gas operations. The editors draw upon these commonalities to develop a series of recommendations that address contemporary issues of water insecurity, and point to "the importance of having a robust regulatory regime for the new socio-technical challenge of hydraulic fracturing and the opportunities it presents" (p. 19). However, there is no guarantee a 'robust' regime will emerge, and the editors acknowledge that "no country has yet articulated a clear, systematic and effective system for regulating unconventional hydrocarbons" (p. 398). I suggest that the persistent obstacles to unconventional oil and gas extraction described in the book are indicative of an important, but largely underexplored question. In its attempt to determine how to best regulate water for unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, Regulating Water fails to ask whether these resources should be extracted at all. As Bernaldez and Rocio discuss in Chapter 8, natural resource literature is often characterized by modernist discourses of environmental management where resources are valued in terms of their marginal utility to humans. While some chapters implicitly query this normative approach to hydraulic fracturing, these critical perspectives are rarely foregrounded or contextualized within contemporary discourses such as fossil fuel divestment and degrowth.

In sum, Regulating Water is a very well-edited volume that provides a detailed and comprehensive overview of current issues pertaining to water security in the context of unconventional oil and gas extraction from an international perspective. Despite potential limitations and critiques that can be made against specific chapters, the overall text succeeds in balancing doctrinal legal and policy approaches to resource governance with broader cultural, political, and socioecological scholarship. While the diversity of themes and geographies covered are likely too broad for any one audience, readers will surely benefit from engaging with the full breadth and scope of the topics that are presented.


Additional Info

  • Authors: R. Buono, E. López-Gunn, J. McKay and C. Staddon
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Springer
  • Reviewer: Douglas Robb
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Water quality, pollution, Environment, Groundwater
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English