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Energy Interdependence

The latest U.S. Census Bureau projections estimate a population increase of 70 million in the next 25 years. Using this estimate, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts electricity demand to grow by about 50 percent.

This projection assumes current laws, regulations, policies, technological progress, and consumer preferences will continue through the projection period. Much of this growth is expected to occur in the Southeast, Southwest, and Far West U.S., where water stress is already prevalent. In five of the world's most water-stressed, contentious areas the Aral Sea region, the Ganges, the Jordan, the Nile, and the Tigris-Euphrates – population increases of 45-75% are projected by 2025. This will place a tremendous strain on global energy resources, potentially causing country-wide rolling blackouts. Additionally, these determinations do not factor in potential destruction by natural hazards or by transnational or domestic terrorist groups. Further, nearly all of these systems have no supply redundancy. Once they are destroyed, supply is permanently interrupted until infrastructure is completely rebuilt.

Following current trends for U.S. withdrawal rates, the consumption of water by the electric industry could grow substantially. Although increased demand for water would provide an incentive for technologies that reduce water use, it is unlikely that these technologies would prevent water shortages that are likely to occur if only through general climate changes in which cyclic droughts are common. While technologies are available that can reduce water use in the electric industry, including alternative cooling for thermoelectric power plants, wind power, and solar photo-voltaics — economics, policy, and environmental factors have limited implementation. In contrast, water use in the extraction and processing of transportation fuels is relatively small. However, as countries seek to replace imported petroleum and natural gas with fuels from domestic sources, such as biofuels, synfuel from coal, hydrogen, and oil shale, the demand for water to produce energy fuels will grow significantly.

Refinery use of water for processing and cooling is about 1 to 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of product. The United States refines nearly 800 million gallons of petroleum products per day, representing about 1 to 2 billion gallons of water per day for the refining process. Natural gas processing and pipeline operations consume an additional 0.4 billion gallons per day. Water is used in the mining industry to cool or lubricate cutting and drilling equipment for dust suppression, fuel processing, and re-vegetation when mining operations and energy extraction are completed. The total water estimated for use in coal mining varies from 1 to 6 gallons per million British thermal units (MMBtu), depending on the source of the coal. When combined with 2003 coal production data (EIA, 2006), total water use for coal mining is estimated at 70 to 260 million gallons per day. Oil shale is another potential domestic source of oil. Based on increasing oil demands and prices, opportunities may exist for significant expansion in the future. But, because oil shale resources are predominantly located in water-stressed areas, development may be constrained by water availability and cost. There will be a trade off. What will be more valuable – the energy needs or the water needs? An example is the Exxon commercial promoting oil production from tar sands in Canada. An extreme amount of water will be necessary to extract the oil from these sands. Considering the beneficiaries in this project are both Canada and Exxon, who will pay for the water loss that is transferred from a water-use scenario to an energy-production scenario? And, what will happen to the surrounding environment due to both water loss and at least potential pollution? These are serious questions that need to be answered and far outweigh profit margins for a corporation.

Biofuels currently provide about 3 percent of U.S. transportation fuel, with more than 130 ethanol and biodiesel plants in operation, producing over four billion gallons of biofuel each year. The most water-intensive aspect of biofuel production is growing the feedstock, with water consumption for refining generally similar to that for oil refining. When the feedstock is corn or soy (used to make ethanol and biodiesel, respectively) and grown on irrigated land, water consumption per gallon of fuel produced can exceed the water consumption for refining by a factor of one thousand. Considering that costs to produce $1 (USD) of Ethanol are actually $1.30, this is a poor use of water resources since the virtual water represented by the feedstock production represents a costlier resource use. The heavy investment by manufacturers of ethanol production in the Midwest may be a primary reason why the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast has become such a hot button issue, from both the corporate, government, and environmental perspective.

For example, the pipeline would carry what is termed ‘dirty oil,’ which is Bitumen, a heavy, tar-like oil that needs to be significantly processed to be turned into lighter, easier to refine, crude oil. Because bitumen is so thick it needs to be diluted with natural gas liquids for fluidity of movement within a pipe. In addition to the large amount of energy and water needed to process and extract bitumen, environmentalists say it is more dangerous to move because it is more abrasive than regular crude and more corrosive – being about 15 times more acidic to pipelines than regular crude. But that is only part of the issue.

According to presentations from Canada to investors, Keystone XL is an export pipeline to refine cheap Canadian crude supplied by the pipeline into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America. Proceeds from these exports are earned tax-free. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks. Effectually, there is an oversupply of cheap Canadian crude in Midwestern refineries. By reducing the oversupply, gas prices in the Midwest would increase approximately 20 cents per gallon. TransCanada, the pipeline owner, stated in its permit application that, “Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally PADD II [U.S. Midwest], are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil. Access to the USGC [U.S. Gulf Coast] via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in [the Midwest] by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude. The resultant increase in the price of heavy crude is estimated to provide an increase in annual revenue to the Canadian producing industry in 2013 of US $2 billion to US $3.9 billion.”

There is so much information from all sides on the issue that it is difficult to determine what sources and values are correct and which ones are pushing specific agendas for profit and other motives. As an example, several environmental groups have raised concerns about the ties between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the lead lobbyist (the CABC – Canadian American Business Council) for the international oil services company TransCanada and have demanded a record of all communications between Clinton's office and that of Paul Elliott, who served as the national deputy director in her 2008 campaign and now serves as the director of government relations at TransCanada. However, this illustrates why energy is so important and why the stakes between energy and water needed for refinement, especially from oil shale, tar sands, and natural-gas production is so high.

Energy policy and related issues are an acknowledged facet of the global community. Energy is needed to convey water; water is required to generate energy. For decades, the U.S. and other countries have failed to develop energy policies that reduce reliance on foreign energy, especially petroleum-based products, and at the same time promote a diverse supply of reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy. While the U.S. has often considered an energy policy, no formal policy has been implemented. Further, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010 was a serious detriment to cutting dependency on foreign oil and energy supplies. Oil has allowed the world’s burgeoning population to continue to grow. When oil first became a common commodity around 1900, the world population was about two billion; today that population is over six billion. Without the use of oil for extensive monoculture agricultural production and supply through trucking and shipping, the world would have a much smaller population. Despite the growing scarcity of these resources, governments fail to develop policy that will mitigate what may become the greatest catastrophe the world has known — the failure of both energy and water systems on a large scale, which will happen for a variety of reasons.

The continued security and economic health of countries, particularly the U.S., depends on a sustainable supply of energy. More importantly, energy policy must be connected to a sustainable water policy because these two resources are inexorably linked. Energy and water are Level 1 critical infrastructures; the most important of all infrastructures. These are the life-sustaining systems that drive our economies and affect every part of life, as well as individual quality of life. Current trends in global population growth, energy and water use and their availability indicate that meeting future energy and water demands to support continued economic growth in a globalization scenario will require the utilization and management in an unprecedented manner of dual resources — energy and water.

In absolute terms, neither energy nor water is in strictly short supply regionally or globally. Instead, both are disparately distributed, particularly in developing nations. What is in short supply is affordable energy and clean, affordable water. At the same time, energy is beginning to compete with agriculture as the largest user of water. A steadily increasing population will significantly increase this competition. Failure to develop sound policies for joint water and energy management and use will jeopardize homeland and national security as well as foreign policy. Both energy and water are growing security threats for the 21st century. Already, cities such as Singapore are treating waste and sewage water for use as drinking water. Cities in the U.S. such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Phoenix are examining this same methodology for possible use. On the energy side, California consistently utilizes rolling blackouts to conserve energy during peak use, a practice which has spread to other populated states such as Texas. The demand for both resources is beginning to outstrip supplies. Nationally, in many countries, this may be a type of things to come.

Although a dual resource, tensions related to water are increasing and have significant implications for U.S. national security. For example, the Indus River System is in a state of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. There are those who claim that armed conflict over water resources has never and will never happen. However, this was exactly the cause of the 1967 war between Israel and Syria — the water dispute between the two countries for control over the Jordan River triggered that conflict. The instability in the Middle East lingers as a result of this issue. Furthermore, a continuation of these conflicts could subject the U.S. and its allies to energy blackmail from the rich oil producers of the Middle East and the major corporations who hold the majority of oil rights in those areas. Currently, China is damming five major transboundary rivers that flow into Pakistan, India, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Tensions continue to mount surrounding this process that could result in catastrophic consequences between three nuclear-armed neighbors.

A steadily increasing global population is placing greater demand on energy and water resources. In turn, this will necessitate the need for increased agricultural outputs on a global scale, which will increase competition for energy and water resources. If this happens, regional stability and national security will be decreased. As an example, in terms of dual use, the water levels of Lake Mead, which is controlled by Hoover Dam, are only 15 feet above critical shortage levels (1,075 feet) at the time of this writing. If the use rate continues, that critical level could be reached within a few short years.

When the critical shortage level is reached, water flow through the dam will cease, as will hydroelectric output. The water from Lake Mead, which is supplied by the Colorado River System, represents half of the water used by metro Los Angeles. The water of Lake Mead is used by 22 million people; seven million people use the hydroelectric energy produced by Hoover Dam turbines. If this critical shortage level is reached, severe consequences will result for the U.S. as a whole, especially economically. In recent years, water levels in Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River, have been about 100 feet lower than historic levels. This drop is primarily a consequence of increasing populations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, reduced flows in the Colorado River due to a sustained 12-year drought in the Southwest, and other competing uses such as agriculture. It would therefore appear we face a conundrum. Building more power plants will further strain and affect freshwater supplies; constructing larger delivery systems to meet the needs of growing populations will increase energy demands. Further, Hoover Dam could be particularly vulnerable to a bio-terrorist attack or an earthquake.

There is no redundant supply for this system or for many similar systems around the world, and factually, terrorists already possess the necessary chemicals that require minimal logistics to poison this and other large systems. Although many experts have stated the logistics required to carry out such an attack are virtually impossible, they are in error — depending on the bio-agent used logistics are far less sophisticated and extensive than have been suggested. As an example, it would require only 22.5 pounds of one specific agent to achieve success; this small amount could be easily carried in a backpack or other innocuous container.

Colorado is not the only state in the U.S. facing linked energy and water problems. In June 2008, the state of Florida announced it would sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in regard to the Corps’ plan to reduce water flows from reservoirs in Georgia that flowed into the Apalachicola River; this river runs through Florida from the Georgia-Alabama border. Florida’s concerns were environmental, that the restricted flow would threaten a variety of endangered species. However, Alabama also objected because they feared that reduced flows might force the Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan, Alabama, to shut down. Nuclear plants require large quantities of water to cool their reactors (to be discussed later). The state of Georgia had been hit hard by a sustained drought, causing a drop in water levels of rivers around the state, which could have also forced Georgia to shut down its own nuclear power plants. Tensions between these states became much heightened. At one point, a Georgia state legislator suggested that Georgia move its northern border one mile further into Tennessee, citing a problematic land survey dating back to 1818.

This is a first hand example of the competitive use among water, energy, and the environment — excluding agriculture, which uses vast quantities of water — and how calamitous circumstances could become for large numbers of people and the consequential need for sound policy implementation. Water and energy are required for modern societies to sustain growth. Water is the most important resource since is it necessary to sustain life, but without energy, food cannot be grown, homes, offices, or schools powered, nor can communications work effectively. A growing population will create demands on these resources at a faster pace than in the past and with consequences that will likely be both unanticipated and disastrous. And, without back-up for most of these systems, various economic, health, and other effects could linger for years.

While these strains between energy and water require sound management and policy development at the local level, especially in water-stressed areas such as the Southwest U.S., relations across boundaries of countries (termed transboundary issues) become ever more important and may likely become the key to preventing potential armed conflict. Water quality concerns, availability and sustainability, border issues, climate change, increasing populations, and growing demands for these resources are creating tough challenges. If, for example, the U.S. and its allies are determined to sever dependence on foreign oil for energy and security concerns, what will this imply for water resources?

Currently there is no cohesive approach since the Department of Energy is concerned more about energy issues than water, assuming there will be sufficient water resources for energy needs; and other agencies, such as NOAA and NASA, only collect water data and are not involved in policy, while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates its quality. The latter looks primarily at water and not at energy and thus, for the most part, all three work separately and discontinuously in closely related areas of these problems; failure to link the criticality of these resources and develop joint policy will likely lead to sustainability issues. Perhaps it will be necessary to form a Department of Water within the U.S. Government, which would be far better economically than nationalization of the U.S. water infrastructure. And, continued failure to develop a national energy policy will likely cause a backlash of results that cannot be escaped. Since other energy sources lag far behind the use of oil and are too expensive for the general population to afford, when oil becomes too costly or in critically short supply, the U.S. lifestyle and that of the world will necessarily shift dramatically and irreversibly.

The energy-water link creates many problems, whether looking at carbon emissions from transportation and their reduction, plug-in cars and their increased energy requirements, or biofuels and the large quantities of water required to grow them, and scaling these issues nationally and globally becomes a complex strategic issue. The choice for one energy use versus another will require an abundant, dependable, and affordable water supply — oil is not a substitute for drinking water. (The above text was extracted from the book “Water Security: Conflicts, Threats, Policies – used by permission).

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