An Inconvenient Truth: We're Winning the Battle Against Water Scarcity

An Inconvenient Truth: We're Winning the Battle Against Water Scarcity
(Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)
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Driven by opposition to fossil fuels, some environmental groups want a national ban on fracking. The more I think about it, the nuttier it seems to me.

What they overlook is the role natural gas not only plays in carbon mitigation but in saving scarce water resources. Cooling systems in natural gas plants use much less water than those in coal plants. 

Since 2010, thanks in large part to an abundance of cheap natural gas produced from a combination of fracking and horizontal drilling, more than 300 coal plants have closed, replaced primarily by combined-cycle natural gas plants. As gas plants shut down, coal mines also closed. Today, much less water is being used for coal mining, coal washing, and for slurry pipes that sometimes transport the coal. That adds up to substantial savings, since 40% of all water used in the United States currently goes to cooling thermoelectric power plants, which is more than all the water used for farm irrigation.

According to a Duke University study, for every megawatt of electricity produced from using natural gas instead of coal, the amount of water withdrawn from rivers and groundwater is reduced by 10,500 gallons, the equivalent of a 100-day water supply for a typical American household. What's more, if all coal plants are converted to natural gas, annual water savings will reach 12,250 billion gallons -- that's 260% of current annual industrial water use.

Potentially, the savings would be even greater if technologies for capture and storing carbon emissions from coal plants are eventually instituted. Carbon capture and storage requires large volumes of additional water and would increase consumption by an estimated 45% to 85%, depending on the scale-up of such technology.  

Given that water is fast becoming a scarce commodity in the Southwest and other regions, the shutdown of coal plants is freeing up suddenly abundant supplies of water in places that desperately need it. That means more water is going to households and businesses, farming and ranching, and recreation. And instead of being pumped out, some of the groundwater is being left in place to replenish aquifers.

The transition away from coal power is only picking up steam. Morgan Stanley projects that coal-fired electricity will decline from 27% of the total US power mix in 2018 to just 8% by 2030. That has important implications for emissions reduction efforts but it also has tremendous implications for our strained water supply. Scientists say that more than one-third of the United States will face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as a result of economic and demographic factors. 

Fortunately, the nation's power plants have used less water every year since 2014, due in large part to the transition to natural gas. According to a report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), withdrawals by thermoelectric power plants totaled 52.8 trillion gallons in 2017, continuing a steady decline that began in 2014. In addition, water intensity of U.S. power generation -- the average amount of water withdrawn per unit of total net electricity generated -- has fallen to 13 gallons per kilowatt-hour, nearly a 14% decrease since 2014. EIA attributes the decline to the transition to natural gas. 

This is an opportunity for a reality check in the national debate over fossil fuels, and our transition to newer, cleaner, and more efficient technologies. It brings into sharp focus the most urgent challenge: How will the United States replace fossil fuels? Can it be done fast enough, cheaply enough and on a sufficient scale without shale gas? And will the dramatic gains in water conservation continue if fracking is curtailed? Not if it means relying solely on solar and wind. 

For all the hoopla about renewables, subsidized solar and wind power combined meet less than 10% of our electricity needs. In contrast, natural gas supplies 40% of the nation's electricity, up from 21% in 2010. Moreover, fracking itself provides a pathway for the renewables that are championed by its adversaries, since cheap natural gas was needed as a backup fuel on days when solar and wind power were in short supply.  

Understanding this reality, we must continue to resist efforts by some politicians to ban fracking. Environmentalists keep insisting that fracking is bad for the public. That position is tough to maintain as the reality emerges that even in the face of opposition, fracking is tremendously popular. Fracking generates revenue for landowners and governments at all levels. Consumers save dollars when gas supplies are plentiful and cheap. And with energy consumption expected to grow by more than half over the next 30 years, the odds seem low that we will run out of water.  

Matthew Kandrach is President of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization. 

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