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Do We Want Water or Gas?

Do We Want Water or Gas?

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(hint: We can’t always have both)

May Your Holidays be Plentiful and Filled with Joy

If you were like me, then at some point on Thanksgiving, you were probably asked a question something like this:

‘Would you like pumpkin or apple pie for dessert?’

… and again, if you’re like me, then you probably answered something like this:

‘Well, duh! I want both!!’

… and so it came to pass.

Ah, gluttony. One of the most joyous of the deadly sins.

Sometimes Gluttony is not an Option

That would be the case when we’re discussing energy production via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The problem is that there’s a limited resource involved–water–that is required for both human life and for gas production. So when competition between those resources is involved, a value judgement must be made. We get ourselves in trouble when we make the wrong decision or when we delay the decision until it’s too late, and we’ve put ourselves on an irreversible course. Like my waistline.

The Impact of Fracking on Water Resources

In order to full understand this, let’s examine the impact of fracking on a finite water source. There are plenty of other environmental issues associated with fracking, and you can find a discussion of them here. But for the moment, let’s just discuss the competition for water.

Not as simple as it sounds: That’s one of the problems that has plagued policy discussion with respect to fracking. As long as people see water coming out of their taps, and that water doesn’t smell like chemicals, then it’s too easy to press on to more immediate problems. But that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t right around the corner, willing to manifest itself in the middle of your shower. Because that could happen.

Combined Water Use Exceeds Supply

So here’s the setup, as explained in this analysis from EcoWatch. Highlights of the analysis include:

  • In Weld County Colorado, 7,000 fracking wells used 16 billion (!) gallons of water to produce shale gas. This is problematic because Weld County sits in an area of extreme water stress, where water usage already exceeds 80% of availability for routine usage such as supplying the resident population and agriculture. Compounding the issue is that wastewater from fracking is not rehabilitated and recycled–rather, it is injected deep into the ground with a hope and a prayer that it doesn’t infiltrate back into the regular water supply. Water has always been the ultimate renewable resource. This water is taken out of use for a long time–maybe forever.
  • Check out the interactive map. Note that much of the highest water usage for fracking is in the Southwest–areas already either natural desert where the ecosystem is fragile and the human population puts exceptional stress on resources, or mountain regions where drought and over-allocation of water resources have created their own crisis independent of fracking.
  • During the five-year period of the analysis, a total of 358 billion gallons of water were used in fracking operations across the country. Water use per well increased from 2.6 million gallons to 5.3 million gallons per well.

Where to Go from Here

I hope this properly illustrates the conundrum we face. In sum:

  • In order to fully utilize inexpensive energy, we are threatening the ability of our society to live, ranch, and farm in large swaths of the country.
  • We became a great nation because of our access to natural resources. Our society will not die out if energy is not developed or is expensive. It WILL die out if we cannot access water.
  • We have been excessively cavalier in the past by thinking that: ‘Nothing could possibly go wrong.’ That thinking led us to Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, the Deepwater Horizon, and Flint Michigan, among many many others.

So in a few short words: It’s becoming extremely important for us to get our priorities straight. So far, we’re not showing much sign of being willing to do that. We can certainly do better.

Photo Credit: Photo by Joshua Doubek / CC BY



American Military University

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