Sometimes life is scarier than a post-collapse science fiction thriller. Such was the case of the first ever Global Water: Oil & Gas Summitthat was held in Dubai last week. While Wall Street was dithering about the failed promise of the Facebook IPO, the oil and water technology industries were plotting about profiting from a thirsty future. Representatives from some of the most powerful companies in the world – Shell, Dow, GE, Veolia, CH2MHILL, AES – met to consummate an unholy alliance focused on using (and polluting) trillions of gallons of water to frack and drill for every last drop of oil and gas.
Dubai was a fitting location for the outlandish and irresponsible group-think that marked the Summit. As the temperature outside soared to 104 degrees, the temperature indoors was kept at an arctic chill – exemplifying the wanton over-consumption that’s driving us to the brink of the climate disaster and the world water crisis. Built on the riches accrued from oil, the city vaunts its 40 shopping malls, 70,000 hotel rooms, and dozens of tall skyscrapers and over-sized resorts. Here in the Arabian dessert, tourists can buy a fur coat, ride in boats on a wide artificial canal, visit the world’s tallest building or stay in a sail-shaped hotel on an artificial island. But, venture outside into sizzling heat and your eyes may burn from the toxic cocktail of ozone, benzene fumes, volatile organic chemicals and dust.
Although I felt like a duck out of water, at least the talk about the large amounts of water necessary for drilling was honest for a change. All pretensions of advancing beyond fossil fuels to an economy based on renewable energy and energy efficiency were absent. There was no need to pretend. The oil and water industry executives at the conference are fully committed to the “drill baby drill” philosophy – no matter the environmental or societal costs. Executives representing oil and water technology corporations spent two days not only strategizing on the brave new world of profiting from wastewater, but justifying and rationalizing to one another the necessity for appropriating and polluting massive amounts of water for the oil and gas industry. Surrounded by colleagues of like mind, the participants spoke freely of both the contamination that is the result of drilling and fracking and the necessity for “reusing” and “recycling” oil and gas wastewater because of the large quantities of wastewater generated.
Polluting fresh water resources was dressed up in a doublespeak that George Orwell’s Big Brother would be proud to call his own. Water that is polluted during the process of fracking or drilling is euphemistically called “produced water.” This waste product includes water and chemicals injected into the formation, harmful substances brought up from the formation (that would otherwise stay underground), and the oil or gas.
Several speakers admitted that there were significant contamination risks, although they declared that regulations for the industry are too tough, especially in the U.S. Among the ingredients of “produced water” mentioned were benzene, toluene, xylene, radioactive material, and salts. “Produced water” varies “considerably” depending on the geology of the site and the type of fossil fuel that is being sought. Its properties and volume also vary throughout the lifetime of the well and there is no standard process for treating the contaminants. After water treatment, a toxic sludge of contaminants remains that must be disposed of in some way. But this certainly didn’t discourage participants from gleefully discussing the potential for treating this nasty wastewater so that it can even be recycled for irrigation and drinking water.
Of course, several representatives of the desalination industry were present. As usual, they presented desalination as if it were the Holy Grail. According to desalination’s proponents, we can use all the water that we want because the ocean is ours to desalinate. Usually there is little discussion of the chemicals that are added during the desalination process. According to one speaker, they include disinfection agents, coagulants, flocculants, anti-scalants, surfactants, acid-based cleaning agents and corrosion inhibitors. After one presentation on the technology, the speaker was asked, “Where does the brine go?” The answer of course, is back into the ocean.
Even a NASA representative spoke at the meeting. Who knew that NASA is spending our tax dollars to form public-private partnerships with “commercial partners” that are seeking new technologies for the oil and gas industry? NASA is researching science fiction like water recycling technologies that might reduce costs for the industry. Among the technologies mentioned by Micheal Flynn, Principal Investigator at NASA, was designing and growing synthetic microbes that can serve as advanced, self-repairing membranes used to filter water.
But, no matter what technology is used, we are talking about big money to build the treatment facilities with the sophisticated technologies that can address some of the difficult contamination issues. This will add major costs to drilling. It is unclear that even if these technologies are successful, that the oil and gas industry will be willing to add significant costs to fossil fuel production. This industry has a long history of avoiding environmental and safety regulations to avoid costs and pad profits.
One thing that is clear is large volumes of water will be destroyed if the industry is allowed to proceed unchecked. Some big numbers were tossed out at the meeting about the ongoing pollution of water resources. An official from Aquatech BV said that 2.4 billion gallons of produced water is generated from oil and gas operations in the U.S each day, and another 5.7 billion gallons of produced water are generated in the rest of the world each day – adding up to a total daily volume of 8.1 billion gallons of polluted water. This is enough water to cover the entire U.S. with polluted water and it’s enough to fill up the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S., every six years. The volume of produced water is increasing at a rate of 8% annually according to an official at GE Power.
It’s also clear that fracking is not the only threat to water resources that is posed by the oil and gas industry, especially in the “mature” oil fields of the U.S. Enhanced oil recovery is the process of forcing oil to the surface by injecting water and chemicals to displace it. But the older the field, the more water it takes to drive the oil to the surface. Globally, it takes approximately three barrels of water to produce each barrel of oil. In the U.S., it can take more than twice that amount, creating over a billion gallons of contaminated water per day.
Which is exactly why one of the main focuses of this Summit was figuring out how to get the public to recognize contaminated water as a resource rather than a waste. Among the solutions trotted out for making produced water “valuable” was to institute pricing for fresh water. Monetizing the value of waterwould give even wastewater increased worth in a world where water is scarce. In fact, this was the most frightening aspect of the Summit.
While most of the engineers attending the meeting were well intended, although focused narrowly on a particular technology or business, it is clear that the top echelon of the technology corporations desire water scarcity. To the truly cynical, scarcity will not only make water more precious, it will make the technologies for removing contaminants much more valuable. So, in the end, polluting large amounts of water is good for business.
No wonder several speakers blamed the media for creating the controversy over fracking or that individuals concerned about the environmental affects of the oil and gas industry were disparaged. It should be no surprise that one executive lambasted Pennsylvania for being full of NIMBYS. For most of the participants in the Summit, it’s full steam ahead – and don’t ask any questions.
But, I have news for the economic interests that have the blind ambition to profit from destroying water resources – their opponents aren’t going away. We are becoming more determined everyday to protect the water that we all depend on to live.
* This insight has been updated with the correct measurement regarding the amount of water the oil and gas industry pollutes each day in the U.S.: 2.4 billion gallons, not trillion.