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New Report Highlights Unsustainable Nature of Water-Intensive Fossil Fuel Production

2 min. read

A new report by the  the National Intelligence Council, "Global Trends 2030: Alternate Worlds," takes a look at "possible global trajectories during the next 15-20 years," including "megatrends" and "game-changers." Among the "megatrends" listed is one that caught our eye: the "Growing Food, Water, and Energy Nexus." A  few key points from that section of the report highlight the challenges we're facing on that "nexus."

  • "The increasing nexus among food, water, and energy— in combination with climate change—will have far-reaching effects on global development over the next 15-20 years."
  • "[D]emand for energy will rise dramatically—about 50 percent—over the next 15-20 years largely in response to rapid economic growth in the developing world."
  • "Much of this increased production—and recent optimism—derives from unconventional oil and gas being developed in North America."
  • "The greatest obstacle to the proliferation of new techniques to tap unconventional oil and gas reserves both in North America and elsewhere is their environmental impact," including possible "contamination of surface water and groundwater during site preparation, drilling, well completion, and operation and the risk to water resources for all users in the watershed."
  • "China’s relative lack of equipment, experience and potentially the necessary extraction resources—mainly water—may inhibit or slow down [shale gas] development there."

In addition to the water and energy "nexus," demand for water is also increasing due to growth in world population and food consumption. As a result of these trends, the National Intelligence Council report finds that "[n]early half of world population will live in areas with severe water stress" in 2030. Assuming this projection is even close to being accurate, it raises the question: given the water-intensive nature of fossil fuel production, how exactly are projected oil, natural gas and coal production levels going to be reached, let alone sustained, in coming years?

Let's be absolutely clear: when it comes to large-scale fossil fuel production using today's increasingly popular extraction techniques, we're talking about enormous amounts of water. For instance, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a typical coal-fired power plant "uses 2.2 billion gallons of water each year." And, according to the EPA, "[f]ifty thousand to 350,000 gallons of water may be required to fracture one well in a coalbed formation while two to five million gallons of water may be necessary to fracture one horizontal well in a shale formation." That's a huge amount of water. In stark contrast, clean energy sources like solar and wind use minimal amounts (if any) of water.  In a world where water is scarce, does it make sense to expand the production of water-intensive fossil fuels,  or is this yet another reason to switch to clean, renewable energy sources? We believe the answer is obvious.