While the availability of energy and water for future generations largely depends on the relationship between the two, this relationship often remains missing from policy and industry conversations around both resources. This was the contention of some of the nation's leading policy and industry experts during a lively discussion at the ClimateWeek Energy-Water nexus event.
Energy production requires the consumption of our finite water resources and the magnitude of that consumption will affect the amount of clean water available in future years. As business leaders, policy makers, and researchers debate the future of energy, it is important to consider the impact on available water resources as part of the equation. Here's why:
1. The link between energy production and water availability is clear. Energy concerns are going beyond resource availability and associated carbon dioxide emissions. One marked example of this is how quickly the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas -- or fracking -- debate has evolved in Texas.
This summer, Texas was the first U.S. state to pass a bill requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluids. The bill responded to fears that the chemicals may be tainting local water supplies. This fall, in the midst of one of the most severe droughts in a century, Texas then imposed a water consumption restriction cracking down on the water use by oil and natural gas producers, who have historically been exempt from such rules. The limits aim to reduce the water withdrawal used for fracking of shale gas in the region.
In a season, the regional debate around fracking shifted from "What are you putting in my water?" to include "How much of my water are you using?" What we can learn from the Lone Star state is this: the issue of water consumption has become an energy concern.
2. Not all energy alternatives make an equal splash. Energy production consumes vastly different amounts of water depending on the source.
According to the World Policy Institute, the volume of water used to produce the energy required to drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. is 32 gallons when the fuel source is traditional oil and 33 gallons when the fuel is unconventional natural gas. That volume is reduced to just 5 gallons when the fuel source is natural gas from conventional land extraction [PDF].
This may not paint a full picture of the impact of our energy resources on water availability (fracking may have a greater impact on the amount of available water after accounting for pollution from fracking fluids, for example). Nevertheless, it is clear that as we transition to a low-carbon future, energy alternatives that reduce carbon dioxide emissions may not minimize impact on water resources. Depending on the composition of our future energy mix, there could be significantly varying impacts on already-decreasing water tables.
3. No turning a blind eye -- the world is watching. As water resources grow scarce and the global population increases, public scrutiny on available energy and water resources will only heighten.
As we've learned from our foray into fossil fuels, we cannot afford to sacrifice long term sustainability for short term accessibility. And if the food versus fuel debate (the global dispute regarding the diversion of crops from food to biofuels) is any indication, global stakeholders will not let energy demand easily compromise the sustainability of other vital resources.
The contention surrounding these issues shows us that stakeholders are already paying more attention to this relationship than ever. In the US, there is protest around the expansion of the Keystone pipeline which many fear could pollute water supplies and harm the Ogallala aquifer that provides drinking water for over 2 million people and supports $20 billion in agriculture.
In China, the Three Gorges dam has come under immense scrutiny because of its impact on water availability in the midst of the worst drought in 50 years for China. And just last month, Brazil's Belo Monte dam was deemed illegal because it failed to consult with affected indigenous groups on the impact to their water supplies.
Transitioning to a low-carbon economy that has minimal impact on our water supply will not be easy. The considerations are many and the conversation is complex.
Is it more important to reduce the associated water consumption or carbon dioxide emissions of our energy production? What fuel mix will minimize the impact on both?
There are no definitive answers, but now is the time to recognize that these water considerations need to become an inextricable part of the energy conversation.