Who Says Oil and Water Don’t Mix?
I’m heading down to Houston, Texas, on September 14 to the Texas-Israel Cleanovation Conference to speak on a panel about the energy-water nexus. Don’t let the old expression fool you — oil and water don’t just mix, they’re inseparable.
It’s no secret that Texas has more than its share of water challenges. But the Lone Star State is an ideal place for a discussion on the links between water and energy.
Texans — and energy industry people across the U.S., from the Marcellus shale deposits in New York to the coal mines of West Virginia, the oil rigs in Los Angeles harbor and the oilfields of Alaska — are working hard to pull the U.S. away from dependence on foreign oil. But we all need to recognize that U.S. energy independence will put unprecedented pressure on the country’s water resources — water for scrubbing coal, water for extracting oil and natural gas, water for cooling nuclear reactors, and water to grow and process biofuels.
On the other side of the coin, energy will be a vital part of helping the nation address growing water shortages — energy for pumping water, energy for treating wastewater (whether for discharge or for reuse), and energy for desalinating seawater to create new supplies for irrigation, industry or domestic use. California alone has more than 20 desalination plants on the drawing board.
Think back to watching James Dean strike oil in the movie Giant. Most of what covered him and his drilling team was water — and not just because it was movie prop “oil,” but because according to the American Petroleum Institute, it takes 7.5 barrels of water to extract a single barrel of oil from subterranean deposits. When the gushers are tamed and the familiar “nodding donkey” pumps are installed, much of what is being pumped is water. A recent report on oil production in Texas tallied up more than 145,000 producing oil wells and over 92,000 gas wells in the state in June 2011. Each one of those is pumping water. It’s not just a Texas phenomenon — in Los Angeles County, just a few miles from my office, there are more than 3,000 pumps running today.
It also takes vast amounts of energy to extract, purify and distribute water. According to the California Energy Commission, California’s water infrastructure accounts for nearly 20 percent of the state’s electricity consumption and 30 percent of its natural gas use. Kelly Twomey, a National Science Foundation Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin who will also be on the Cleanovation panel, points out that generating electricity across the U.S. consumes an average of 2 gallons of water per kilowatt hour — and that heating water is one of the largest uses of electricity in our homes.
Around the world, groups of water-related businesses and academic programs are springing up to create “clusters” or “hubs” for water innovation. Israel has become globally recognized as “the Silicon Valley of Water Technology.” Singapore has become a world hub for water reuse and recycling, centered around its ground-breaking NEWater system. And Milwaukee, Wis., emerged from one of North America’s worst modern waterborne disease outbreaks to create The Milwaukee Water Council and become a renowned hub for clean water innovation, with a cluster of more than 130 companies and 100 academic researchers focusing on water. Not only has the Council earned the coveted U.S. Water Prize — the region has generated jobs and pushed clean water to a higher level.
Those clusters represent jobs ... good ones. They represent economic growth and innovation. And they will quite literally help save the world.
So where will America’s water-energy hub be? Will it be in Houston, in the shadow of the oil company skyscrapers? In California, the nation’s most populous state, whose 37 million residents face an array of water challenges? In Denver, a short hop to the gas and coal fields of the High Plains? Wherever it will be, our nation needs a focal point to help us address the challenges we face in the water issues surrounding energy and the energy issues surrounding water.