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Energy and Water

Paul Kando

If current usage trends continue, by 2030 the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs, a U.N. report warned last week. Underground aquifers are already running low, even as rainfall patterns are becoming more erratic due to climate change. Yet as world population grows to 9 billion by 2050, 55% more groundwater will be needed globally for farming, industry and personal consumption.

Flames from faucet

photo credit: www.cleanwateraction.org

Short of water, crops fail, ecosystems break down, industries collapse, disease and poverty worsen, and violent conflicts over access to water become more frequent. More efficient water use could guarantee enough future supply, however "unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit" the annual World Water Development Report stated. Already about 3/4 billion people worldwide have poor access to clean drinking water. Unless reforms are made to ensure greater efficiency and less pollution, the situation is likely to worsen. The report blames unsustainable development practices and governance failures which continue to affect the quality and availability of water.

A case in point is hydrofracking for oil and natural gas. Water is by far the largest component of fracking fluids. According to a 2009 report on modern shale gas by the Groundwater Protection Council, “the amount of water needed to drill and fracture a horizontal shale gas well generally ranges from 2 to 4 million gallons, depending on the basin and formation characteristics.” A 2010 Harvard study found that, on average, water consumption for natural gas fracking ranges from 0.6 to 1.8 gallons of water per million BTUs of energy gained.

The extraction of so much water for fracking has raised concerns about the depletion and contamination of drinking water aquifers, and other ecological impacts. Even the mere the transportation of millions of gallons of water (fresh and waste) involves hundreds of truck trips, which contribute to air pollution and spew carbon into the atmosphere.

According to industry records, between January 2011 and August 2012, at least 65.9 billion gallons of water was used in the U.S. to frack for oil and gas. Directed in 2010 by Congress to examine the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the U.S. each year – equal to the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities with a population of 50,000. Coalbed methane wells use from 50,000 to 350,000 gallons of fracking water per well, while each deeper, horizontal shale well can use anywhere from 2 to 10 million gallons.

Due to public concern about the high volume of water used in fracking, oil and gas drilling companies have started reusing and recycling wastewater. Typically the wastewater is filtered and distilled, then returned for use again at the well. In the natural-gas industry some drillers recycle at the well site. Others truck the water to and from a recycling facility. Still others add fresh water to the wastewater, to dilute the salts and other contaminants before pumping it back in the ground for more hydrofracking. Some of the wastewater is sold for melting road-ice, since the brine is extremely salty, or to suppress dust during road construction. Fracking sludge that settles from these various processes is taken to landfills or injection disposal wells.

The amount of recycled wastewater in use is difficult to assess because, according to a New York Times investigative report, state records are lacking. And recycling does not eliminate potential environmental and health risks: "If drillers were to lose the exemption from federal law that allows their waste not to be considered hazardous, they would probably be forced, at great expense, to start more rigorously testing the waste for toxicity. They might also have to ship sludge and salts high in radioactivity to Idaho or Washington State, to the only landfills in the country permitted to accept such waste." In short, fracking water is permanently removed from the natural freshwater cycle and, to make things worse, a majority of fracked gas wells are located in already water-stressed areas where they compete with farmers for badly needed irrigation water.

We don’t have fracked gas wells in Maine. However our energy policy priorities still need serious rethinking. We are on track to increasingly rely on fracked natural gas imported to the state, supposedly to keep our electric rates low. However, this will cost us dearly as our energy dollars leave our economy year after year. Why this overreliance on yet another fossil fuel, when we have plenty of less and less expensive distributed solar and wind energy available, without any of the problems associated with fracked natural gas whose cost can only increase?