Sustained droughts and skyrocketing demand underscore the critical need to re-evaluate public policy to address the growing competition among farmers, residents and the energy industry for scarce water resources.
Climate change already has caused some of the worst droughts and water shortages in the US and on the planet. In the midst of this disaster, the nation’s energy interests are celebrating a bonanza in fracking one of the largest sources of shale containing natural gas on the planet. The fracking technology being used is relatively new and inadequately regulated. The trillions of gallons of water already used contain about 400 billion gallons of toxic additives. The US has no established technology or infrastructure that can recover potable water from the enormous magnitude of this existing and projected future deadly waste. Present disposal methods cannot ensure long-term isolation from the environment.
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On Nov 8, 2012, The United Nations General Assembly was told that drought and desertification affected one third of the earth’s surface and about 1.5 billion people globally.
In the US, the effect of drought on energy production is comparable only to the effect of drought on farming. In drought areas, farmers compete with frackers for water from investor-owned water utilities. Farmers lose.
Every day in 2008, water-cooled thermoelectric power plants in the United States withdrew 60 billion to 170 billion gallons of fresh water from rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers, and consumed 2.8 billion to 5.9 billion gallons of that water. The coal industry alone was responsible for 67 percent of those withdrawals, and 65 percent of that consumption.
On average in 2008, plants in the US nuclear industry withdrew nearly 11 times more fresh water than coal plants per unit of electricity generated. The water usage of renewable energy technologies varies. Some concentrating solar power plants consume more water per unit of electricity than the average coal plant, while wind farms use essentially no water.
In 2011, Texas had the worst one-year drought in the state’s history. Texas’ water supply for the future is uncertain, and the health of Galveston Bay, home of the state’s most commercially productive estuary, is in jeopardy. In spite of this, the state is planning multiple power projects to meet projected population growth. Nine coal plants in planning stages will be added to the 20 coal-fired power plants already in the state.
The 2011 drought in Texas created tension among farmers, cities and power plants across the state. At least one plant had to cut its output, and some plants had to pipe in water from new sources. The state power authority warned that several thousand megawatts of electrical capacity might go offline if the drought persisted into 2012.
The White Stallion coal plant, near Bay City south of Houston, planned to buy water taken from an estuary rich in oyster and shrimp nurseries. The project has been opposed by farmers who need the water the city planned to sell.
Citizens of Sweetwater in west Texas were outraged upon hearing that their city was secretly negotiating the sale of water rights for a so-called clean coal project.
The state’s water shortage is structural, warns the Texas Water Development Board. By 2060, the state will have two gallons of water available to it for every three gallons it needs. A structural water shortage is a permanent water shortage that can only be solved by drastic changes to less agriculture and fewer people. “More coal plants sucking more water from rivers and estuaries are not part of a sane water policy.”
Not a Sane Water Policy
In 2011, Texas had about 93,000 natural gas fracking wells, up from around 58,000 in 2000. According to the Texas Railroad Commission, more than 15,300 wells have been drilled in the Barnett Shale underlying Texas. Critics of fracking claim the industry actually uses far more water than it discloses. Because water used in the fracking process becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons and other toxins, frackers typically sequester it deep underground, removing that wastewater permanently from the hydrologic cycle. Unlike the water used for irrigation or daily living, it doesn’t re-enter rivers, aquifers or the atmosphere.
The waste from fracking is about 70 percent of the 8 million gallons of water containing 400,000 gallons of toxic chemicals per well. 649 chemicals are used in fracking water. A 2012 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed 67 earthquakes recorded between November 2009 and September 2011 in a 43.5-mile grid covering northern Texas’ Barnett Shale formation. The study found that all 24 of the earthquakes with the most reliably located epicenters originated within two miles of one or more injection wells for fracking wastewater disposal.
Sequestering toxic fracking waste is at best, a temporary expedient. If the sequestering process for fracking waste is responsible for subsequent earthquakes, then the waste is even more likely to be disgorged uncontrollably and unexpectedly into the environment.
Farmers Lose to Frackers
Colorado is facing drought not seen since 2002, following the fourth-warmest and third-least-snowy winter in US history. Colorado State University scientists report that 98 percent of the state is facing these drought conditions. Colorado’s hydro-fracking only adds additional strain as farmers and drillers bid for a scarce resource.
At Colorado’s premier auction for unallocated water this spring, companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing at well sites were top bidders on water supplies once claimed exclusively by farmers.
Farmers who go to the auctions seeking to produce food are on equal footing with companies seeking water for fracking, Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said. “If you have a beneficial use for the water, then you can bid for that water,” Werner said. “We see the beneficial use of the water as a positive for the economy of the whole region. Fracking is one of those uses.”
Investor-Owned Water Companies Join Forces With Frackers
Two of the country’s largest private water utility companies are participants in a massive lobbying effort to expand controversial shale gas drilling – a heavily water-dependent industrial activity that promises to enrich the water companies, but may also put drinking water resources at risk.
The water companies – American Water and Aqua America – are leading drinking water suppliers in Pennsylvania that also sell water to gas companies that use fracking.
Sarah Pavlus of the American Independent News Network reported in May:
These investor-owned, publicly traded water utility companies are also dues-paying ‘associate members’ of the gas industry’s powerful Marcellus Shale Coalition. Both water companies serve millions of people across the country – Aqua America operates in 11 states and American Water in more than 30.
According to Pavlus’ story, the company isn’t currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, though in a quarterly earnings call last year, American Water CEO Jeff Sterba told investors, “We are very definitely looking and working in the wastewater treatment area.”
Like American Water, Aqua America is not currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, but may expand into that market in the future, according to the story.
Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Pavlus:
Sometimes the interests of private ownership are inconsistent with the concept of preserving our water resources in the public trust for future generations. And the potential clashing of those interests is why these questions have been raised about whether for-profit companies ought to be running public water supplies.
A New $9 Billion Market With Little Experience or Regulation
Pennsylvania-based wastewater treatment company Heckmann Corp. already is involved in fracking in the big shale deposits including the Marcellus shale, Utica shale, and the Eagle Ford shale. On September 4th, 2012, the company announced it was acquiring Power Fuels Inc., a North Dakota-based wastewater treatment company with involvement in the state’s Bakken oil formation.
The company provides water to drilling companies, which require millions of gallons of water per well. It also claims to treat the wastewater that remains after fracking.
The acquisition will bring the company’s fluid-handling, solid-waste tanks to 2,000, and its disposal wells to 45. The company will ultimately have 20,000 customers.
In our new Saudi America, one million fracked wells already exist. About 60 percent of the new oil and gas wells are being drilled horizontally, the most environmentally unfriendly form of drilling. Almost nine out of every ten future wells drilled in the United States will need to undergo some form of fracking.
Fracking represents a monumental water treatment challenge – one whose magnitude and complex indeterminate composition has never before been addressed. More than 600 compounds of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, microbes and salts in trillions of gallons of water from shale gas wells present a water treatment problem for which there is no experience, and no historical precedent.
Water and energy are mutually dependent resources. There will always be trade-offs for various energy technologies. With the increasing threats to available water, we need to develop policies that minimize water-intensive energy production.