H2OIL: New fuel technology gulps water, threatens supply

As supplies dry up, so do ways to extract oil and gas

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For decades, Americans worried about running out of energy to keep their cars revving and their homes heated, but with technologies making oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels more plentiful, the danger now is that the world might run out of the water needed to produce power.

Top energy analysts are finding that power generation and oil and gas development — particularly from shale bedrock — are threatened in areas of water scarcity because increasingly critical extraction techniques are heavy users of water.

The danger, reports say, lies in the U.S. Southeast and West, as well as in the deserts of the Middle East and China, home to some of the most promising fields for fuel extraction worldwide.

Outside of farming, no other industry uses as much water as energy. Worldwide, the energy industry typically consumes 15 percent of the water withdrawn from rivers, lakes and reservoirs. In the U.S., the share is even higher: Electric power alone accounts for 40 percent of all water use, increasingly putting it on par with drinking water and other essential uses by households and businesses.

As the planet’s population grows to 7 billion and beyond, and people increasingly migrate to dry, sunny climates such as the American West that have limited supplies of water, clashes between human and commercial needs for water are expected to grow.

“When we flip on a light, we rarely think about water. But electricity generation is the biggest user of water in the United States,” said Sandy Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project.

Huge quantities of water are needed to drive the turbines that generate power and to cool nuclear power plants. The amount of water needed to produce oil and gasoline is growing rapidly as companies tap into harder-to-reach sources buried deep in the bedrock using water-intensive techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. This technique, commonly called fracking, shatters rock by forcing water and chemicals into it at high pressure.

Even oil wells in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations that have been producing billions of gallons of fuel for decades increasingly require water-intensive techniques such as fracking and water injection to keep the fuel flowing. As a result, every gallon of gasoline consumed on the highways today requires at least 13 gallons of water to make, Ms. Postel said.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Energy and Environment

Reports from the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency have documented some spot energy shortages in the U.S. and abroad that were caused by water constraints. Analysts predict the trend will only increase.

In 2012, a delayed monsoon in India reduced hydropower output at the same time electricity demand was running high, contributing to two days of blackouts that affected an estimated 660 million people.

Lack of water available for injection for some of Iraq’s biggest oil fields in the south is keeping hundreds of thousands of oil barrels off international markets each day.

An extreme drought in September 2010 cut the Hoover Dam’s power-generating capacity by 23 percent, while low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains last year cut California’s hydroelectric power by 8 percent.

Extreme drought in the fall of 2011 led the city of Grand Prairie, Texas, to ban the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing in order to save the dwindling drinking water supply.

In 2007, 2010 and 2011, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to reduce power output from its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama because the temperature of the river into which the plant discharges was high enough to raise ecological risks.

In 2009, an energy company in Nevada had to abandon plans to build a coal-fired power plant because not enough water was available.

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