Energy production threatens to strain nation’s water supply

Zack Colman


Oct 17 , 2012

The federal government must better monitor the nation's water supply as expanded domestic energy production threatens to further strain water resources, warns a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Tuesday.

With an earlier Congressional Research Service study projecting the energy sector to account for 85 percent of the growth in domestic water consumption between 2005 and 2030, the GAO report says the federal government must improve oversight on the nexus between water and energy.

The report calls for the Energy Department to institute an oversight program to evaluate water availability and use by energy producers. It notes the Energy Policy Act of 2005 required the department to implement a similar program, but has so far failed to do so.

The report adds that climate change, population growth, increased competition for energy resources and demographic changes would “exacerbate the challenges associated with water and energy supply and demand, and shifts in any of these areas are expected to increase demand for both of these resources.”

Higher energy consumption in general has required using more water for cooling power plants. A significant amount of the growth in water consumption also has come from the emergence of new energy production methods.

For example, hydraulic fracturing used to tap hard-to-reach oil-and-gas deposits revolutionized the natural-gas drilling industry. Known as fracking, that process injects a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand into tight rock formations to unlock fossil fuel reserves.

Biofuels production also has siphoned considerable amounts of local water for growing feedstocks, the report noted. A federal rule requires refiners to nearly triple current production levels by blending 36 billion gallons of biofuel into traditional transportation fuel by 2022.

Those developments — and, in particular, the fracking boom — combined with the past summer’s drought have led to water shortages across the country.

That forced water auction prices higher, with energy companies outbidding farmers who traditionally had little problem securing water through that avenue. On the other hand, many energy firms could not find enough water to continue fracking.

Federal, state and local agencies need to better coordinate water and energy decisions to avoid those situations, the report says. Too often, that planning is “stove-piped” to different authorities with little coordination, it adds.

The report calls for those agencies, as well as industry, to improve water supply data collection to better inform planning decisions.

“[T]he lack of such data makes it challenging to fully assess the impact that particular energy policy choices will have on water resources,” it says.