Friday, February 14, 2014

Water use for fracking exacerbating water shortages?

While fracking has helped reduce CO2 emissions in the US (see previous post), expanding the use of this technology is meeting a lot of resistance from many environmentalists. Some worry that cheap natural gas increases the challenge for wind and solar technologies.  Others worry about the fugitive natural gas that could quickly negate any benefits of the reduced CO2 emissions because of the 20X global warming potential of natural gas. Still other concerns have to do with ground water contamination, or just water use. A typical fracking well takes between 2 and 4 million gallons of water.  To help visualize a million gallons, picture an Olympic swimming pool, 100 m x 25 m and 2 m deep.  It holds 660,000 gallons, and so a million gallons is a half larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

A recent report by Ceres, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness among business leaders and investors about issues of climate change and water scarcity, asserts that water used for fracking was depleting water in arid regions and thus exacerbating the water shortage. This report attracted a lot of media attention.  The headline for the story in The Guardian ran, “Fracking is depleting water supplies in America’s driest areas, report shows.”

While it is true that water use in dry areas diverts the resource from other uses some quantitative consideration is needed to provide perspective.  As I read through the Guardian article, I found this bit of information: Fracking operations in Texas (the state with most frack wells) used about 48 billion gallons of water. 
Now, 48 billion gallons sure sounds a lot; and yes, Texas is pretty arid.  The question one has to ask is how much water does the state use? A little searching led me to the fact that in 2010 Texas used 22 million acre-feet of water, which translates to 7,168 billion gallons of water. In other words, all the water used for fracking in Texas represents just 0.68% of water used in one year! Pointing to fracking as the reason for the water shortage is clearly misplacing the blame.

Energy Forum at Port Metro 2050

I recently spoke at Vancouver’s Port Metro 2050 Energy Forum.  I talked about the need to reframe the debate of energy supply, and to focus on solutions that could either provide—or avert the use of—energy at the scale of about 1 cmo/yr.  The presentations are now posted on the web. My talk (about 30 min long) is in Session 1, and it begins around minute 36.  Too bad that in the posted video the camera just focuses on the speakers and not the slides they were showing.  The slides may be downloaded from the same site.  

The first presentation by Sandra Winkler of the World Energy Council covers the latest WEC thinking about managing the energy, economy, and environment trilemma. WEC lays out two extreme scenarios, dubbed Jazz and Symphony. The Jazz scenario is trade based, consumer driven, and focused on access and affordability It achieves growth through low cost energy and Governments facilitate GHG actions.  It leads to a rather high demand for energy by 2050 of 880 EJ (about 6 cmo). The Symphony scenario is government led, voter driven, and focused on meeting environmental goals and energy security. It includes a binding international agreement on curbing GHG emissions. Under this scenario, global energy demand in 2050 is 700 EJ (4.6 cmo). Either way, the global energy demand does not flatten, but increases by about 50% or 100% of current levels.
In the second session there are presentations about the measures maritime industry is taking to minimize its carbon footprint. Ginger Garte from Lloyds Register pointed out that about 40% of the fuel used on cruise ships goes to powering their hotel services, and 60% is used for propulsion.  Thus, there are opportunities for cutting fuel use by undertaking efficiency measures ranging from LED lighting, replacing sheets and towels only when requested by guests, and smarter management of distributing power to different galleys. She also discussed newer hull designs and coatings to reduce drag and improve the fuel efficiency of the propulsion system. The presentation by Lee Kindberg contains a startling bit of information. It was an an eye-opener for me.  She points out that while the carbon footprint for shipping a pair of sneakers from China to Europe in a container ship is 100 g-CO2, the carbon footprint for a 20-km car trip in an efficient diesel automobile to purchase it at the local mall is 1800 g-CO2.  Like she said, “Mode of transportation matters.”  And, I would add that one needs to be quantitative about these matters.

The final presentation in this set is by Storm Purdy from GE.  His talk focuses on the opportunity presented by the increased availability of natural gas in North America by the developments in shale gas technology.  Already it has allowed the US to reduce its energy-related CO2 emissions from a peak of 6.0 billion metric tons in 2007 to 5.2 billion metric tonnes last witnessed in 1992.  He also described the challenges to increasing natural gas production and installing the requisite infrastructure to handle the wider distribution and use.