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Water down the energy drain

 Posted by on June 16, 2011
Jun 162011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

I have a bumper sticker on my car provided by the American Farmland Trust. I like it because it’s (so very) succinct.

No Farms. No Food.

We have another slogan in the making here in Texas this summer.

No Water. No Energy.

With more than half of the state gripped by a severe drought. (See this dro

Most of Texas is suffering "exceptional" or "extreme" drought (the red and dark red areas).

ught map), questions are surfacing about how wise it is to pump millions of gallons of water laced with lubricants and toxic chemicals into the earth to extract natural gas, a practice known as hydraulic fracturing.

Actually, it’s not a question confined to Texas. “Fracking” is being debated in several states, Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado and others, where natural gas drillers see opportunity in blasting methane gas from shale deposits deep in the earth, but residents worry about water and air pollution from the process.

In New York, several groups have organized to protest the potential sullying of the upstate watershed that feeds New York City as gas production companies line up to drill into the Marcellus Shale.

Next door, many Pennsylvania residents remain angry over the contamination of local water wells in areas near gas drilling operations. (A recent study by Duke University scientists found methane contamination of local wells located near gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region.)

In Texas, the water question has been compounded by a new focus on oil shale reserves in South Texas. Oil companies are using the same water-intensive fracking techniques employed by the natural gas industry to tap these tightly packed reserves. But the arid region may not have the water to sustain this latest oil boom, and could suffer serious trade-offs as water is diverted to energy exploration.

Meanwhile, in North Central Texas, gas drillers continue to blast into the Barnett Shale region around Dallas and Fort Worth, an area that’s already been punched with gas wells like a pin cushion. Operations are driving ever closer to suburban and urban neighborhoods, fueling citizen protests over the damage to air quality and the consumption and contamination of water. Waste water from the wells, known as “produced water,” has been one hot button issue, because it can leach back into the ground from holding pits.

All this, and gas drillers are still not required to reveal the toxic chemicals they use in the fracturing process, having been exempted from the Clean Water Drinking Act of 1974 by a handy piece of legislation known as the Halliburton Loophole passed in 2005.

We’re far from the day when produced water is recycled (though some companies are taking early steps), and nowhere near a consensus about what is reasonable or justifiable water use.

To be fair, I looked up what Chesapeake Energy, a big player in the natural gas boom, has to say about the water use involved in “fracking” a well. On its website,  Chesapeake acknowledges that it takes about 5 million gallons of water to blast open a typical shale gas well (with 4.5 million gallons being pumped into the earth). But it tries to put that figure into perspective:

The 5 million gallons of water needed to drill and fracture a typical deep shale gas well is equivalent to the amount of water consumed by:

  • New York City in approximately seven minutes
  • A 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant in 12 hours
  • A golf course in 25 days
  • 7.5 acres of corn in a season

I guess what scares me here is that this argument doesn’t convince me that we need to quit worrying about fracking, so much as it suggests we need to rethink how we burn coal and green golf courses!

As for the amount of water it takes to grow corn, this water price tag at least produces a commodity that we need. You could argue that we need natural gas also (I admit it, I’m a user), but here we have water-friendlier options: Energy conservation, net-zero homes, wind power, solar power, electric cars.

Corn is an important food item, and it needs water to grow, and we’d best save all the water we can so we can continue to grow it. (Though to put this in perspective, I would have to note that 80 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed livestock – a ridiculous use of this grain, because so much goes to fatten cows who would rather be eating grass. There’s a lot of energy and water behind those excessively “marbled” steaks that have done so much for our heart health all these years.)

I’m left to conclude that we should evaluate ALL of our water use in this country, before we end up in the situation facing so many nations where residents die for lack of sanitary water, or go into battle for it, as they have in Myanmar this week where soldiers are fighting the construction of dams by China that will redirect water, and displace villages in Myanmar. (See the full story from ENS.)

China needs the power. Myanmar needs the water.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network