Water is the new oil – a reprise from 2013

The following post was written nine years ago, but with the severe water shortages occurring in the western United States and in Italy, Germany, England, etc., this issue is coming to head. Some of the observations made then are now coming home to roost in more than a few places.

Let’s get down to basics. Our planet has two vital resources  – air and water. We cannot live without them, but we continue to be pretty poor stewards of both. With the advent of man-influenced global warming, one of the key outcomes is we will have more severe droughts in drought-stricken areas. The models are showing global warming is occurring at a faster pace than predicted several years ago. Yet, even without global warming, we must be better stewards with our resources, water in particular. In the book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” by Steven Solomon, he devotes an entire chapter looking to the future. The chapter is called “Water: The New Oil.”

First, some context. This book is one of the best history books I have ever read. Solomon discusses how civilizations came into power and then fell by their ability or inability to manager water resources. Water serves several purposes besides drinking water – farming, sewage maintenance, transport and energy. Getting water into cities and out of them with sewage are vital to their health and wealth.  The latter can be equally important due to the bouts of cholera and dysentery that occur when sewage intermixes with the drinking water supply.

A few examples might help. There are three things that occurred in US history which significantly aided our rise to power in the world. The first was the Erie Canal which connected New York with the Great Lakes. The second is the Panama Canal which gave the US control over two oceans. The third is the numerous dams and water shed protections which gave us energy as well as secured drinking and farming water. Teddy Roosevelt’s greatest contribution is he was the most prolific water oriented US president in our history.

Yet, we have a major problem. We are not protecting our water supply like we need to. There are an increasing number of fights over water, where people downstream argue with people diverting more gallons to their communities upstream. Also, with the worsening droughts, there is insufficient rain to replenish the water. This problem is not restricted to the US. Saudi Arabia is rich with oil, but very poor with water. Its water sheds are in danger of drying out in the reasonably near future. In the US, Texas has numerous cities where the water aquifers are dried out. Water has to be trucked in from elsewhere. The national and international agencies that measure the impact of global warming, say the extreme droughts in Texas are exacerbated by man-influenced global warming.

Water is more critical now than ever before. Water is the new oil. We straighten out rivers allowing water to run off too quickly. We let run off occur from developments that increase silt in the water by washing the sand, dirt and clay into the water. With the rising seas, we let seawater run into fresh water lagoons that were used for farming. We Americans over water our lawns to make them green, when the indigenous grass and shrubs would be OK with a healthy brown color. We cut down on the water flow downstream by damming up a river upstream. We get energy, but there needs to be a more judicious way to let the water flow and still provide the energy.

And, we use water for energy purposes besides the hydro-powered electricity the dams create. In some energy solutions, the water can flow back into the water supply as tepid water, but not all of it as some gets lost in the process. For example, with coal-fired, nuclear powered, and natural gas-powered plants, the water is used to create steam from the heated source. The steam turns the turbine which causes the electromagnetic generator to turn and create the power. Once the water re-forms from the steam, it can be released back into its source. Yes, there are other environmental impacts, but the leftover water can flow back to the source.

Fracking to get the natural gas is a totally different matter. The major concern I have over fracking is not just the chemically laden water, the mercury, arsenic and methane that leaks into the air, the earthquakes that are causally linked to deep ground water disposal and the environmental infrastructure defamation, it is the water cannot and must not be reused. There are two problems. You cannot let the chemically laden water to get back into the water supply. It is harmful to humans and animals. Yet, water finds a way and it poisons the water sources. In the movie “Gasland” there is story of a woman who freezes and saves all the dead animals she finds near rivers and streams adjacent to fracking sites. She has hundreds of them.

The bigger concern is the use of the water in the first place. As noted, we cannot reuse the water. Yet, to frack a well, it is estimated by industry that it takes 4 to 6 million gallons per frack. The average well is fracked ten to twelve times, but let’s use ten for ease of the math. So, the average well is fracked with 40 to 60 million gallons of water. In Utah, they built 2,000 wells in close proximity. If you multiply this out, that is 80 to 120 billion gallons of water. In my home state of NC, they are talking about fracking 10,000 wells. That translates into 400 to 600 billion gallons of water. Using an unscientific term, that is a bucketload of water.

My question is this where you want to use your water? Given the above problems that fracking causes, is this where you want to use your water? You may say I am blowing smoke, but farmers and frackers fought over water in Kansas and Colorado this summer. I would add that Texas is a leader in fracking and they have an extreme drought issue with some cities out of water. I am not linking the two causally as I don’t know for sure, but that is one hell of a correlation, meaning one occurrence happens at the same time as another.

Is this where you want to use your water? I don’t. Fracking is bad enough news without this issue. But, this makes it a slam dunk. The developer makes money, gives a stipend to the landowner and then leaves the clean up to the state. The state residents are the ones who will suffer from the water shortage and other issues.

Water is one of our two dearest resources. Water is the new oil. We cannot soil it and then immediately drink it. We cannot flush it away and not reuse it. We must find ways to conserve it, distribute it equitably and be judicious with its use. We need to innovate on ideas like the flushless toilet competition that is underway. In desert areas, find inventive ways to get rid of sewage. In a major county in California, they are significantly filtering sewage run off water to make new drinking water. And, I mean signficantly filtering it with multiple steps. We need to use more indigenous plants. We need to conserve our water use.

And, we need to use renewable energy sources that do not demand the use of water. Solar and wind energy processes continue to get more scalable, but we need to factor the overall cost of eco-energy versus fossil fuel energy, which must include the cost on the environment, health of our people, and use of water. Fossil fuel produced energy may be cheaper without these other factors, but we need to move away from them in a concerted way.* Our lives depend on it.

*Note: Nine years later, producing wind and solar is as or more cost effective than coal energy production even without factoring in the other environmental, litigation and transportation costs.


13 thoughts on “Water is the new oil – a reprise from 2013

  1. What fracking has done and the long term damage caused to the quality and levels of the water table is nothing short of appalling. It is, in my mind, absolutely criminal. But, you know, all hail serving the gods of Oil and Gas. No sacrifice is too large, apparently, especially if it doesn’t vote.

    However, this also an opportunity.

    Abandoned and leaking fracking wells are a huge problem. This will could and should help monetize their sealing. How so? Turn them into ‘batteries’.

    As for water, there’s going to be a lag between recognizing long term pattern shifts and planning for them. As Michael Mann says repeatedly, “Uncertainty is not our friend” and we just don’t know what today’s increasingly shifting climate patterns will produce especially in regard to recharge rates of fresh water. This uncertainly translates into poor management of water resources. The areas currently undergoing historic drought and dwindling water supplies and loss of glacial feed are the very ones undergoing the greatest population growth TODAY – Arizona, Texas, and Florida in particular. No amount of water restrictions is going to offset this increased demand. Lack of a reliable supply is the problem and one that is going to add to the creation of ever increasing climate refugees. This is a problem waiting to explode.

    • Agreed. It is atrocious. The methane leaking from fracking wells can be seen by satellites. I agree on the explosion of the water crisis. Thanks for your comment. Keith

  2. Oh, and let’s remember that nuclear REQUIRES water… a lot of water just to operate. Many rivers (I’m looking at you, Europe) are at threshold levels so expect many of these plants in the coming months to have to shut down unless and until water levels are ‘restored’. So when you alter what ‘restored’ looks like, that’s the uncertainty and it is a looming problem.

    • Agreed. Regardless of the reaction to cause water to boil to turn the turbines, whether it is nuclear, coal or natural gas, water is needed. In this report I have cited before, Duke Energy says they lose 1 – 2% of the water as the steam cools and goes back to the feeder river. That adds up.

      • Perhaps more importantly, rules are being changed so these sites can discharge heated water, which will have a significantly negative impact on local marine and flora ecology, especially promoting algae blooms.

      • Any time we allow things to go back into nature different than it came out, it has to have repercussions. Thanks for mentioning this.

  3. Note to Readers: Please do not be frightened by Steven Solomon’s book “Water” if you are not a history fan. It reads like a series of stories. Also, another good book is called “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” by Miriam Horn who speaks to the practical discussions around these three professions as well as Shrimper and Riverman. The premise is how these folks can support the environment and still make a living.

    A final book is called “Climate of Hope” which is written by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club. Before his sexual harassment caught up with Bloomberg he did lead about 750 cities to share success stories in helping the environment, while Pope took on other issues. If the book were written in today, it would be called “There is still some hope,” but it offers great education of some success and other offerings. A documentary called “Ice on Fire” frames the climate solutions in terms of putting less carbon in the air and taking it out of the air and is worth the watch. Greta Thunberg plays a role in it.

  4. Speaking of water conservation, citizens of California in particular should be aware of a rising danger called an ARK event, which has now reached 50% probability (based on rising temperatures and a very truncated historical record) in the next handful of decades. ARK stands for Atmospheric River occurring once every thousand years (that’s the ‘K’ meaning). This kind of river produces well, unbelievable rainfall amounts measure in feet per day per square yard. The same flooding of 1860-61 (also about a foot in a day over a widespread area) would be beyond catastrophic today with all the channeling done of our waterways and far worse in effect than any predicted ‘The Big One’ earthquake. Like a aerosol pandemic, we know it’s going to happen; it’s just a question of when and how bad and so individuals should take this into consideration.

    On the positive side, at least it will put out the brush fires.

  5. Gosh, I appreciate the comprehensive overview of the water crisis you have presented in this post. Definitely well worth reposting, Keith! New Zealand is also called The Land of the Long White Cloud. We get excessive rainfall here. Yet, even here, the last few years we’ve had water restrictions in place each summer. It makes ordinary citizens like me scratch our heads, saying why?

    • Yvette, I wonder if the aquifers are getting replenished? You would think with all the rain, you do not need to irrigate like we do here in the states, so that would cut back on use. I will check and see if there is any press on the subject. Keith

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