In Era of Climate Change and Water Scarcity, Meeting National Energy Demand Confronts Major Impediments

The All-American Canal, the main water conduit from the Colorado River into the Imperial Dam, flows through the Imperial Valley, Calif. The U.S. consumes about 100 billion gallons of water a day. Nearly 85 percent is used for crop and livestock production. Of the 16.1 billion gallons that remain, half is devoted to producing energy.

Photo © Brent Stirton / Reportage by Getty Images for Circle of Blue
The All-American Canal, the main water conduit from the Colorado River into the Imperial Dam, flows through the Imperial Valley, Calif. The U.S. consumes about 100 billion gallons of water a day. Nearly 85 percent is used for crop and livestock production. Of the 16.1 billion gallons that remain, half is devoted to producing energy.

In November 2009, in pursuit of a cleaner energy development strategy that also reduced carbon and other climate changing gases, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his agency had identified 23 million acres of public lands in six southwestern states as prime locations for new solar electrical generating plants. Salazar also said that the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department unit that owns and oversees much of the western public domain, was encouraging new solar plant construction with a “fast track” permitting process. The process would make some plants eligible for federal grants and loans under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included nearly $100 billion for clean energy investment.
The dual announcement was anticipated by executives in the solar generating industry, who responded with an avalanche of applications to federal and state agencies to build more than 180 new solar plants in California, Nevada and Arizona. But senior leaders of other Interior Department units, most notably the U.S. National Park Service, also responded to the agency’s promotion of solar energy with unusually sharp critiques of the potential consequences to the Southwest’s natural resources, especially the region’s scarce water supplies.

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Solar generating plants that use conventional cooling technology use two to three times as much   water as coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Newer technology that relies on air for cooling uses much less water, but also is less efficient in generating power, thus requiring more land. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated that solar power plants cooled with water could generate 53,000 megawatts of electricity in the Southwest, equal to more than 50 large coal-fired utilities, but also would require 164 billion gallons of water annually, an enormous amount in the driest region in the country.

In February 2009, Jon Jarvis, then the head of the Park Service’s Pacific West Region, and now the Park Service director, took the unusual step of warning his Interior Department colleagues that a solar construction boom in the desert, which results in dozens of conventional wet-cooled solar plants, could tilt the already fierce competition for water in the Southwest the wrong way.

“In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining,” Jarvis wrote in the internal memorandum.

Confrontation Unlike Any Other

In almost every way imaginable, Jarvis’ warning is emblematic of the critical choke points emerging in the United States as rising demand for new sources of energy confronts the nation’s diminishing supplies of fresh water. Four months ago, in Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue set out to better understand what was happening around the country as communities, businesses, and residents confronted the increasingly intense competition between water and energy. Our reporting from the coal fields of southern Virginia, the high plains of the Dakotas, California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s farm fields, Northern Alberta, Canada, and elsewhere identified urgent contests between energy development and water supply that can be resolved. But taming the conflict between energy and water also poses extraordinarily difficult challenges to regional economies, governing practices, technological development and the quality of natural resources.

Most importantly, though, Choke Point: U.S. raises significant concerns about the values and principles that form the basic foundation of national energy policy in the era of rapid population growth, rising energy demand and climate change. The DOE has prepared a number of studies, accepted largely without question, that predict that as the nation’s population reaches more than 440 million in 2050, energy demand will increase by 40 percent. Federal authorities, along with technical specialists in private industry and academia, insist that such demand can be met by producing more energy sources from fossil fuels and nuclear power, and by developing cleaner energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels and wave energy, which also have the benefit of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide that are warming the climate.

ROCHELLE, ILLINOIS, AUGUST 2010: The Illinois River Energy biofuels plant in Rochelle releases plumes of steam at sunrise. The ethanol plant processes over 40 million bushels of corn into 115 million gallons of fuel grade ethanol annually. The plant is one of hundreds around the country transforming corn into ethanol. It takes nearly 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol from irrigated corn: four gallons from unirrigated corn.

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
ROCHELLE, ILLINOIS, AUGUST 2010: The Illinois River Energy biofuels plant in Rochelle releases plumes of steam at sunrise. The ethanol plant processes over 40 million bushels of corn into 115 million gallons of fuel grade ethanol annually. The plant is one of hundreds around the country transforming corn into ethanol. It takes nearly 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol from irrigated corn: four gallons from unirrigated corn.

Underlying the nation’s strategy is the principle that the nation can meet its rising energy demands by applying technology and characteristic American innovation to the job of generating more energy.

But in Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue found that without significant changes in approach, meeting the demand for 40 percent more energy by mid-century –if it’s even possible – will come at an extraordinary price to the nation’s air, water, land and quality of life. Rising energy demand and diminishing fresh water reserves are two trends in dramatic collision across the country. Moreover, the speed and force of the collision is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress: California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West and the Southeast.

“What’s missing in our national energy discussion is efficiency and conservation,” said Sandra Postel, an author and director of the Global Water Policy Project. “You save energy and you save water. We need a coherent policy and practices to emerge, and they haven’t yet, that drives water conservation and energy conservation. Every gallon of gas you don’t putin a car saves 13 gallons of water. But we aren’t talking about that nearly enough right now.”

Water Supply Confronts Energy Demand
Indeed, Choke Point: U.S. found that while federal energy experts, and their colleagues in academia and industry pursue an energy development strategy strongly devoted to more production, they are not paying sufficient attention to addressing the water supply, the primary impediment.

Scientists define water consumption by two basic measurements. One is how much water is withdrawn from America’s rivers, lakes and aquifers for domestic, farm, business and industrial use, most of which is returned to those same sources. The second is how much water is actually consumed in products, by livestock, plants and people, or evaporates in industrial processes.

In both measurements of withdrawal and consumption, energy is at the top of the charts. The United States withdraws 410 billion gallons of water a day from its rivers, lakes, aquifers and the sea. About half is used to cool thermoelectric power plants, and most of that is used to cool coal-powered plants, according to the most recent assessment by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Similarly, the country consumes about 100 billion gallons of water a day. Nearly 85 percent is used for crop and livestock production. Of the 16.1 billion gallons that remain, half is devoted to producing energy.

In just three years, North Dakota has established itself as the number four oil producing state in the nation—but at what cost to its water supply?

Federal and state regulators, and even coal industry executives grudgingy acknowledge the ropes of ecology, economy and efficiency that are tightening around the nation’s energy sector. Climate change is leading to decreased supplies of rain, snowmelt and fresh water. But as the contest between energy and water grows steadily more fierce, the United States seems intent on bypassing the conflict.

In one of the most startling findings of Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue reporters discovered that a far-reaching federal program of research and analysis, funded by Congress and designed to help the nation anticipate and temper the mounting conflict between rising energy demand and diminishing supplies of fresh water, has been brought to a standstill by the DOE.

The research program, known as the National Energy-Water Roadmap and ordered up by Congress as part of the 2005 Energy Security Act, was meant to provide lawmakers and the executive branch two studies of the impending conflict between energy and water. The program also explains what to do about the collision. The first, completed by a team of federal scientists in December 2006 and made public a month later, described the serious consequences the nation is already encountering, as the United States encourages more energy production, which is the second largest water-using sector, but gives scant consideration to water supplies, which are in retreat in most regions of the country.

Meanwhile, the second and final report that Congress commissioned—a comprehensive research agenda to better understand the nation’s energy—water choke points and begin developing real world solutions – has been held out of public view for more than four years. The DOE declined repeated requests for interviews about the reasons for keeping the report from publication.

STANLEY, NORTH DAKOTA, SEPTEMBER 2009: An oil drilling rig on the Bakken Shale formation at sunset.

Photo © Greg Latza / Hess Corporation
STANLEY, NORTH DAKOTA, SEPTEMBER 2009: An oil drilling rig on the Bakken Shale formation at sunset.

Other Major Findings
Choke Point: U.S. also found:

  • Unless the United States plans more carefully, generating energy from clean alternatives is almost certain to consume much more water than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. Generating one gallon of fuel from irrigated corn, for instance, takes 650 gallons of water. Generating one gallon of gas from oil takes one gallon. Solar thermal power that is conventionally cooled consumes more water than a coal-fired and nuclear-powered plant. Of all the available green energy technologies, only wind and solar photovoltaics consume less water than fossil-fueled energy. Geothermal can save water or consume more depending on the technology used and the location.
  • The region that is confronting the energy water choke point first and most dramatically is the Southwest, as climate change steadily diminishes snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains. The Colorado River transports less water than it did a decade ago. Lake Mead, which stores water from the Colorado River and is one of the largest reservoirs in the country, is 41 percent full. The lake’s water level has fallen 135 feet since it was last full in 1999. Declining water levels have prompted federal managers to reduce the Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric generating capacity 33 percent. Federal authorities say if the lake falls 25 more feet, it will not have enough water to power the dam’s generators, shutting down one of the largest power plants in the West.
  • The next era of hydrocarbon development is well underway in the United States as energy companies tap the “unconventional” oil sands of Canada, the oil shales of the northern Great Plains, and the gas shales of the Northeast, Texas, Oklahoma and the Upper Midwest. But tapping each of these carbon-rich reserves is producing more damage to the land, generating more carbon emissions, and using three to four times as much water than the conventional oil and gas reserves they are replacing. Essentially, the energy industry is becoming a mining industry, turning carbon-rich sands into fuel and using water shot into the ground under super high pressure to shatter deep shales to release oil and gas. The scale of the industrial enterprise is immense and moving with amazing speed. In tar sands production alone, oil companies and pipeline developers are spending $15 billion to develop the tar sands; $30 billion to build a new network of pipelines from Canada to U.S. refineries (including one that has produced a dispute between state and the EPA), $20 billion to modernize refineries in the Great Lakes, Illinois, Oklahoma and the Texas Gulf. Earlier this year, Exxon Mobil paid $41 billion for XTO Energy, which has big reserves in tar sands, deep gas shale and oil shales in the United States.
  • Developers in North Dakota are spending roughly $7 billion annually to drill 1,000 wells a year now into the Bakken Shale formation and are reaping a bonanza—100 million barrels of oil and 100 billion cubic feet of gas this year. The state is the nation’s fourth largest producer of oil now, behind Texas, Alaska and California. Three years ago, it was barely in the top ten. And the industry also is using billions of gallons of North Dakota’s scarce groundwater to fracture the shale, and generating a civic pushback from farmers and rural residents concerned about the supply of groundwater.
  • The source of more than half of the natural gas produced in the United States is deep shale reserves underlying the Northeast, Gulf Coast states, the West and Midwest. But each of the thousands of wells drilled each year into the unconventional gas shales requires three million to six million gallons of water injected under high pressure to fracture the rock and enable gas to flow out of the rock. Accidents involving so called “fracking” have caused contamination and interruptions in water supply in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the safety of the practice.
  • The political influence of the energy industry has no equal in the U.S. In Kern County, Calif., where the agriculture industry and the oil industry compete for diminished supplies of water for irrigation and energy production, the big winner is the oil industry. While a severe drought wracked the state, and agricultural and environmental groups wrangled over sharply reduced water shipments to irrigate the arid San Joaquin Valley, the oil industry received 8.4 billion gallons a year—as much water as it needed—from the web of aqueducts and canals that carry water from rivers and reservoirs high in the Sierra Nevada.
  • The energy vector in the United States points strongly to more fossil fuel consumption, not less. That means much more climate changing emissions and tighter fresh water reserves. For instance, the utility industry has opened or begun construction on 32 new coal-fired plants since 2008, according to the DOE. Those plants represent 17.9 gigawatts of new energy and 125 million more tons of carbon dioxide each year. They also represent the sharpest increase in coal-fired power in a generation and will consume billions of gallons of water a year. Unconventional tar sands and shale oil reserves in the country (North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado) contain two trillion barrels of oil—enough to supply America at the current level of demand (7 billion barrels a year) for hundreds of years. The deep gas-bearing shales contain millions of trillions of cubic feet of gas—also enough to supply the country for centuries.
  • Carbon capture and storage technology, which is the favored tool to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled electric generating plants, is undergoing a handful of tests, including at a new electric-generating plant just permitted and partially financed by the DOE in arid Kern County. But the technology also increases water consumption at coal-fired utilities 40 percent to 90 percent, according to the DOE.

These findings represent a new way to look at the economically essential and ecologically damaging accord between energy and water. Choke Point: U.S. is among the first comprehensive assessments that bring that conflict into sharp national focus.

It is not just that energy production could not occur without using vast amounts of water. It’s also that it’s occurring in the era of climate change, population growth and steadily increasing demand for energy. The result is that the competition for water at every stage of the mining, processing, production, shipping and use of energy is growing more fierce, more complex and much more difficult to resolve.

Energy production withdraws and consumes more fresh water than any industrial sector other than agriculture. With the exception of wind power and solar photovoltaics, all of the clean energy resources available to the United States use more water than producing energy from conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

“As a nation we really are not willing to understand the issues around controlling energy supply so that it doesn’t lead to water conflict,” said Mike Hightower, an energy systems analyst at Sandia

National Laboratories in New Mexico and one of the nation’s top experts on the water-energy choke point. “The issues are interdependent. But not enough people are willing to connect the dots. And there are real issues at play. Will water scarcity limit natural gas production from the gas-bearing shales, for instance? Will water limit construction of new power plants? Will energy production be limited by the water supply?”

“Politicians don’t like to look at the big picture,” Hightower added. “They want to focus on one thing. And right now that is meeting the energy demand, and to some extent reducing greenhouse gases. But it has to be managed differently so we don’t damage our water resources.”

— Keith Schneider

Before Big China Climate Conference, New Senate Support For Clean Energy

China nuclear plant
I’ll be in Beijing later this week, and then on to Tianjin to cover China’s first UN-sponsored climate summit, which begins October 4. Before leaving, though, I wanted to note that on September 22,  a group of Republican and Democratic Senators sent a rare bipartisan signal to the world that the United States has not abandoned the hard work of reducing climate emissions and speeding the clean energy transition. The group introduced a bill to establish the first national renewable energy standard, requiring utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewables by 2021. Wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, biomass, new hydropower, and methane produced from landfills would be considered renewable sources.China Clean Energy Challenge

The bill, which is modeled after similar legislation in effect in 31 states and approved by the House last year, is co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Republican Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas, Susan Collins of Maine, John Ensign of Nevada, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Rare Agreement In Senate
The measure has 18 other Senate supporters. It would allow states to meet more than a quarter of the requirements through energy efficiency efforts and proposes to charge utilities that are unable to meet the new standards a compliance payment of 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour to support renewable energy development or to offset consumers’ bills.

“The votes are present in the Senate to pass a renewable electricity standard,” said Senator Bingaman. “They are present in the House. We need to get on with figuring out what we can pass and move forward.”

“A sensible and modest renewable energy standard will help encourage home-grown supplies like wind in Kansas,” added Senator Brownback, “and help diversify our nation’s energy sources.”

In fact, considering the Senate’s reluctance to act on climate-changing emissions, the new proposal is potentially huge. By requiring new power demand to be met with clean energy sources, especially wind or the sun, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by a maximum of 100 million metric tons annually when it goes into full effect in 2021, according to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. This is comparable to removing 23 million cars from the road. Last year the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that state standards will provide support for 76,750 megawatts of new renewable power by 2025-an increase of 570 percent over total 1997 U.S. levels.

Effect Could Be Big
The Apollo Alliance, a big supporter of clean energy and jobs, reported last week that a group of 21 businesses, labor unions, think tanks, and advocacy groups recently released an RES Action Statement that called on the Senate to approve a clean energy standard immediately in order to prevent a renewables industry slowdown and stem the flow of clean energy capital and jobs from the U.S. to China. “If we wait another year,” said a senior vice president for Iberdrola Renewables, “we’re going to lose a lot.”

A new national renewable energy standard, indeed, could have the same effect on the economy as similar standards have had on the states. The bipartisan support for the proposed bill reflects the marked growth in renewable energy, especially wind, to produce electricity. At the end of last year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Kansas produced over 1,000 megawatts, New Mexico nearly 600 mw, Maine almost 200 mw, and Iowa more than 3,600 mw. Denise Bode, the chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, says 85,000 Americans are employed in the industry. Unemployment rates in the big wind generating states of the Great Plains, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are the lowest in the country. According to a recent RES Alliance For Jobs study, a higher renewable energy standard of 25 percent would generate 274,000 new American jobs.

China Conference Awaits
The hopeful Senate measure coincides with China’s big UN-sponsored climate meeting in Tianjin, which starts next Monday. I’ll report from Tianjin here and on other sites — Circle of Blue, Grist, Energy Collective, Climate Media Partnership — writing about any diplomatic breakthroughs, covering US NGO-sponsored events and trips to Chinese clean energy manufacturers and looking closely at how China uses water for energy production. I’ll report on how China is responding to the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions — including building new nuclear plants like the one in the pix above — and bidding to control the $multi-trillion market for clean energy equipment and technology.

In holding the meeting in Tianjin, a new and very short ultra high-speed bullet train ride from Beijing, China is sending its own message to the world. The world’s largest country is outpacing the U.S. in manufacturing wind, solar, and advanced lithium-ion battery manufacturing. With the bipartisan renewable energy standards proposal, that message appears finally to be reaching the Senate.

Talk to you from China.

— Keith Schneider

A Building Named In His Honor, Stewart Udall Declared “Greatest Secretary of the Interior”


There have been 50 Interior secretaries since the department was established in 1849 and President Zachary Taylor named Thomas Ewing its first secretary. On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, in a Washington dedication ceremony that brought Republicans and Democrats together for an all too rare moment of inspiring reflection, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar formally declared that his predecessor, Stewart Lee Udall, was the “greatest secretary of the Interior in United States history.”Udall plaque on Interior Department

Salazar  — in pix below with Senators Tom Udall (right) and Mark Udall (left) — delivered this insight a few moments before dropping a blue drape and unveiling the bronze plaque that will soon be affixed to the agency’s headquarters in Washington. In May, Congress passed, and on June 8 President Obama signed a bill that names the headquarters the Stewart Lee Udall Department of Interior Building. Joining Salazar on the Interior Department auditorium stage were a good number of Stewart’s large family including two sisters –Elma and Eloise; the two senators from New Mexico and Colorado; three more children – Lynn, Lori, and Denis; and a number of grandchildren plus wives and husbands.

In sports, the ultimate honor is to retire a star player’s number. In government, it’s naming the agency headquarters after its most distinguished leader. It’s a rare event. The FBI and Labor Department headquarters are named for leaders. The Senate and House office buildings also are named for honorable lawmakers.

Stewart Udall served as the 37th Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and at a time when bipartisan values enabled Washington’s elected leaders to govern in the public interest. Stewart’s mission to more sensitively manage the nation’s resources even as he alerted the country to what he called the “quiet crisis” of pollution and degradation yielded a legacy of land preservation and environmental safeguards that changed the nation for the better. Stewart died on March 20, 2010 at the age of 90.

Each of the seventeen men and women who delivered remarks, song, and poetry at the dedication described in often funny, and always telling detail how Stewart’s life, and his work in and outside government, delivered to every corner of the nation parks, wild lands, natural rivers, refuges, clean water, clean air, arts, cultural institutions and justice. They also recounted how he did so with humility, reverence for beauty and prose, and a stubborn optimism about the promise of America.

Robert Stanton, the National Park Service director from 1997 to 2001 and the agency’s first African American leader, recalled how in 1961 Stewart purposefully recruited students from historically black colleges to work summer jobs at the Interior Department. Stanton heeded the call from “my secretary” and ended up as a seasonal ranger in Grand Teton National Park.

Lynda Johnson Robb, the daughter of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson, revealed to the more than 200 people that attended the ceremony, that “Mother and Stewart, you know, had an affair” and that “Daddy was so jealous because Mother was spending so much time with Stewart.” Her cheeky observation, of course, reflected the close relationship Stewart had with Lady Bird, who shared with the young Interior Secretary the same goals of conservation and stewardship. The two traveled together to parks in the west, said Robb, and down rivers on rafting trips.

Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian, noted that President Johnson, who Stewart served as Interior secretary for more than five years, deserved more respect and recognition for how his Great Society programs laid the foundation for the era of environmental policy making that occurred in the 1970s. And he noted that President Johnson, who was raised in the beautiful Texas Hill Country near Austin, also heard nature’s call of distress. “One day President Johnson called Stewart in his office,” Brinkley said. “Stewart, he said, I hear that Lake Erie is getting dirty. It’s dying. Is that true?”

Brinkley said that Stewart confirmed the lake’s diminished condition and explained that the Interior Department has wild lakes in its jurisdiction but doesn’t oversee water quality. “Stewart,” said Johnson, “do something about it. When I think about dirty water I think of  you!”

Patty Limerick, a historian at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, who was a friend of Stewart’s, described the breadth of his interests – the law, the arts, writing, the environment, government, politics, the West, commitment to justice — and his capacity to weave them into visible gains for the country. She asserted that of all the people who have served the United States in an executive capacity only Thomas Jefferson exceeded Stewart in so successfully applying all of his varied interests and skills in service to America.

I met Stewart in 1988 when I was a national correspondent for the New York Times and he was a private attorney working on behalf of uranium miners and residents of the West downwind of the Nevada Test Site who’d been injured or killed by exposure to radiation from the government’s atomic weapons production and testing industry. In many ways, Stewart’s 12-year battle for justice for American victims of the atomic bomb, which culminated in a 1990 law signed by President George H.W. Bush, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, was the most heroic work of his life.

That’s saying something since Stewart was a machine gunner on board U.S. bombers during World War Two, one of the most dangerous assignments. He took up the cause of justice on behalf of Americans who’d been put in harm’s way by a government operating a dangerous radioactive enterprise in suspicion and secrecy.

Rebecca Adamson of the First Peoples Worldwide spoke to Stewart’s fealty to Native Americans, including the Navajo miners injured and killed by exposure to low-level radiation from the mines. His official portrait, which hangs in the gallery leading to the Interior secretary’s executive office, was painted by Allen Houser, a Chiricahua Apache artist. The portrait of Stewart, with his long hair brushed by a western breeze, and slightly longer lines of the chin and higher cheeks than he had, is meant to wrap him in the ceremonial embrace of the Navajo and Hopi tribes. The portrait, which also includes the transcendent browns, and greys  and reds of the Colorado Plateau, is the dominating visual image that graces the bronze plaque naming the Interior building in his honor. “The First Nation lost a hero when we lost Stewart,” said Adamson. “We mourn his death and what he meant to us.”

Senator Mark Udall, Stewart’s nephew and son of Mo Udall, Stewart’s brother who he adored, provided some of the most fitting comments about his uncle’s stubbornness and stamina. In short, when Stewart set his mind to a goal there was no stopping his progress, whatever it took. If the Supreme Court was arrogant enough to deny downwinders and miners justice, Stewart would take it to Congress and win compensation for the families and a formal statement of apology from the U.S. government. “I never thought Uncle Stew would ever die,” said Senator Udall.

The last breath left Stewart Udall on the first day of spring this year.  Yet as long as there is a United States of America, everything that Stewart did for the land and its living communities, wild and settled, will pulse with life. Denis Udall composed a song in his father’s honor, performed by a grandson, Jonah Udall, that made the same point:

He hiked canyon trails; ran rivers, too.
Climbed glaciered mountains just for the view.
If when we die, we go somewhere.
I bet you a dollar, he’s walking there.

Has anyone seen my old man?
Has anyone seen my dad?
Look where the mountains meet the sea,
And bring him home to me.

Ken Salazar at Udall Building dedication

— Keith Schneider

The Next Era of Hydrocarbon Development: Well Underway and Dirtier Than the First

big-haul-rigs Highway 12 - Choke Point: U.S.

The most direct path to the nation’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway12, two lanes of black top that unfolds from Grays Harbor in Washington State and heads east across the top of the country to Detroit.

The 2,500-mile route, parts of which were used by Lewis and Clark to open the American frontier, has quickly become an essential supply line for the energy industry. With astonishing speed and influence, American oil companies, Canadian pipeline builders, and investors from all over the globe are spending huge sums in an economically promising and exceedingly ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development. They are steadily replacing the dwindling “conventional” pools of oil and gas with “unconventional” fossil fuel reserves contained in the carbon rich sands and deep shales of Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming hold oil shale reserves estimated to contain 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, according to the Energy Department, half of which the department insists is recoverable. Eastern Utah alone holds tar sands oil reserves estimated at 12 billion to 19 billion barrels. The tar sands region of northern Alberta, Canada contains recoverable oil reserves conservatively estimated at 175 billion barrels and with new technology could reach 400 billion barrels. Deep gas-bearing shales of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Great Lakes, Northeast and Gulf Coast contain millions of trillions of feet of natural gas. If these projections turn out to be accurate, there would be enough oil and gas to power the United States for at least another century.

Big, Big Energy Boom
The explosion in development of unconventional fossil fuel reserves raises an insistent issue for the nation. At a time when the country invested roughly $100 billion in 2009 to claw its way onto a renewable energy path, its richest and most politically powerful industry is hurtling in the opposite direction, developing on a massive scale sources of energy that cause considerably more environmental harm – including pouring more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere — than conventional oil and gas drilling. The logical economic and political endpoint for the oil and gas industry, one that should invite invite panic among environmental activists, is to elect more conservatives to the House and Senate, close off federal funding for clean energy, and produce enough unconventional oil and gas to perpetuate the fossil fuel economy for decades.

That, in essence, is what’s occurring along Highway 12. Oil companies use Highway 12 to reach a good portion of the new oil and gas domain. They transport equipment 900 miles north to Alberta, Canada, where they are spending $15 billion annually to develop the region’s tar sands, the single largest source of oil imports to the U.S.

Midway across North Dakota, now the fourth largest oil producing state in the country – 100 million barrels this year — and where 1,000 wells will be drilled in 2010, Highway 12 crosses the $5 billion 2,151-mile Keystone Pipeline. It is the centerpiece of a $31 billion network of major transport lines either planned or under construction to carry oil from the middle part of the continent to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois that are being modernized and expanded at a cost of more than $20 billion. Several more of those refinery expansion projects lie on the highway’s eastern end in the Great Lakes and upper Midwest. In all, according to company reports and state economic development offices, the oil industry is spending nearly $100 billion annually to perpetuate the fossil fuel era.

What About Climate and Clean Energy
But even as one of the largest energy booms in history has erupted along a great arc of the continent that reaches from northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, the consequences are prompting civic discontent, lawsuits, and political battles in state capitols. The boom also is producing fresh scars on the land, new threats to scarce reserves of fresh water, and portentous questions about the effect of the boom on increasing emissions of climate-changing gases.

Oil industry executives say their investments are consistent with the national goal of producing more energy to increase security. Oil companies are also profiting handsomely from the exploitation of these unconventional sources of oil and natural gas. The stakes became clear earlier this year, when ExxonMobil paid $41 billion to buy XTO Energy, a major player in unconventional fuels production, especially natural gas.

Last year, in a much-disputed draft environmental impact statement that summarized the need for a new Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil from unconventional reserves to American heartland refineries, the State Department tacitly backed the big oil boom. “The increasing demand for crude oil in the U.S. cannot be entirely met by efforts to conserve use of refined petroleum products or the increased use of renewable energy,” said the State Department. “As crude oil demand increases, the overall domestic supplies of crude oil are declining.” The department’s analysts added that without the pipeline and the new supplies of oil it would carry, the country “would remain dependent upon unstable foreign oil supplies from the Mideast, Africa, Mexico, and South America.”

Environmental leaders, particularly those in the Northwest, view the boom along Highway 12 much differently. “’Concerned’ would be putting it mildly,” said K.C. Golden, the policy director at Climate Solutions, a climate and energy research and advocacy group in Olympia, Washington. “I’m pretty sure this is not what Lewis and Clark had in mind when they opened doors to the West.”

Road to Oil and Gas
One of the flashpoints is occurring in northern Idaho and eastern Montana, where oil companies want to use Highway 12 to dispatch the largest convoy of oversized trucks ever assembled. The trucks, nearly as long as football fields and so wide they cover both lanes of the highway, haul refining and processing equipment that weigh hundreds of tons and are as tall as a mansion.

Conoco Philips was granted a road permit Idaho last month to haul four Korean-built oversized processing units from Lewiston, Idaho, where they were offloaded from Columbia River barges, to the company’s expanding refinery in Billings, Montana. Earlier this month, Idaho Second District Judge John Bradbury revoked the permits, asserting that the state did not adequately assess the hazards of the shipment, particularly to citizens if an accident involving one of the immense processing units blocked the highway. Local officials in Montana are considering similar legal action.

The court judgment in Idaho, which is set for an appeal today in the Idaho Supreme Court, could have significant ramifications for ExxonMobil Canada, which wants to make 207 oversize hauls next year along US 12. Exxon’s truck will haul even larger Korean-built units to be assembled into a new tar sands oil processing plant in Alberta. Using Interstates or railroads is not an option, says the company, because the loads are too big to fit under bridges.

Many climate advocates see an opportunity to block the ExxonMobil convoy and slow the development of the Canadian tar sands, the fastest growing source of C02 emissions in Canada, according to the Pembina Institute, a respected Canadian environmental think tank. “My primary concern, of course, is the intended use of the equipment,” said Golden. “The idea that we would parade these weapons of mass climatic destruction through the main arteries of a region that fancies itself a proving ground for sustainable prosperity is more than a little galling.”

The oil and gas industry is undeterred. The Bakken Shale that lies 10,000 feet beneath a 200,000 square mile expanse of North Dakota, Montana, and Sasketchewan is said by the USGS to contain over 4 billion barrels of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Oil industry geologists say there is much more than that in the Bakken, and in a second oil-rich shale reserve, the Three Forks, that lies below it.

Oil wells in the Bakken Shale are capable of producing 4,000 barrels a day or more, according to state figures. Spurred by the Bakken riches, energy companies are spending tens of millions of dollar to lease mineral rights in Wyoming and Colorado and are drilling exploratory wells in the Niobrara Shale, which geologists say share many of the same oil-bearing characteristics.

“It just almost boggles the mind,” Lynn Helms, the director of North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told a veterans group in Minot on September 2. “It is not like the traditional oil and gas play.”

The energy boom, though, is alarming environmental groups because government studies show the unconventional reserves are tearing at the land, generate more C02 emissions, and use three to five times more water to produce oil or natural gas than conventional reserves. “It’s a pact with the devil,” said Randy Udall, a consulting energy analyst from Colorado. “The tar sands and shale oil and shale gas require a lot of water. It sets up a collision course for the West.”

Water-Energy Choke Point
A 2006 study by the Department of Energy that looked at rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater supplies found that the collision between the two was occurring most violently in the fastest growing places that also happened to have the scarcest water resources – California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeast.

It takes four to six barrels of water to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, which is four times more water than it takes to produce oil from conventional reserves, according to a 2009 study by Argonne National Laboratory. Much of the water to produce oil from Canadian tar sands comes from the Athabasca River, which runs through the northern Alberta mining district. In 2008, according to Energy Alberta, tar sands mines used 184.3 million cubic meters of water — 48.7 billion gallons.

Just 10 percent is returned to the river, which a number of independent studies say is visibly depleted and rapidly deteriorating. The balance is poured into toxic tailing ponds as big as lakes, containing more than 1 trillion gallons of waste water combined and so polluted that at least 1,600 ducks that inadvertently landed in them have died, drowned by the tarry water.

Moreover, producing tar sands oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, emits 40 percent more greenhouse gases than oil produced from conventional reserves.

Producing oil and gas from the Bakken formation also uses a lot of water because
getting to the oil and natural gas requires rupturing the deep shale to open spaces and crevices through which the oil and gas can flow. The pulverizing process, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” involves sinking drill bits two miles deep then turning them to move horizontally through the shale. An armada of tank trucks haul 2 million to 4 million gallons of water to each well site where pumps shoot it down the well at such super high pressure – 8,000 pounds per square inch – that the rock splits.

The practice is dangerous. Just a day before Helms’ appearance in Minot, an oil well undergoing fracking near Kildeer ruptured. The blowout leaked 100,000 gallons of fracturing fluid and crude oil before being plugged two days later.

Fracking has caused contamination of surface and groundwater in other states, as well, and harmed drinking water in some communities, according to a number of reports from local environmental organizations. The EPA is readying a report on the hazards of fracking, due next year.

Earlier this year, the volumes of water needed to frack the Bakken Shale also generated concern among state fisheries and wildlife officials in North Dakota. In February, a supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department formally opposed a farmer’s plan to sell a third of the water in eight-foot-deep Trenton Lake to a Texas energy developer. “Trenton Lake just doesn’t have the depth and capacity without seriously impacting the lake,” said the supervisor, Fred Ryckman. “The oil industry can find water elsewhere.”

Almost 150 oil and gas drilling rigs are operating in North Dakota this month, nearly tying a state record, and more than all but two other states. Some of more than 7,000 laborers from other states that migrated to North Dakota’s oil and gas fields used Hghway 12 to get there. The state unemployment rate has dropped to 3.6 percent – the nation’s lowest. And when North Dakota’s budget cycle ended in June, Budget Director Pam Sharp reported an $800 million surplus.

In short, not too many in North Dakota’s state government are really worrying – yet — about the water supply.

— Keith Schneider

Cody Bates, My Son, Is A U.S. Marine

Cody Bates is a Marine

My son, Cody Bates, graduated from Marine boot camp on Friday. There were 565 other young Marines there too — and 2,500 or so friends and family members — from states west of the Mississippi who are trained at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Marine graduation, at least for this parent, is a study in the satisfaction of a son’s accomplishment and the lingering dread of what it means at a time of war. Of the more than 1 million Marines trained at MCRD San Diego since it opened almost 100 years ago, some didn’t… Well you get the point.

Among Cody’s many distinctions is his instinctive sense of duty. He’s the most dutiful person I’ve ever met. Even as a kid he didn’t talk back. If you asked him for help he’d respond. He follows the rules. The worst infraction I’ve ever known him to commit was a speeding ticket early in his driving career. He didn’t hang out with the wrong people. He’s been a quiet guy, not saying much when he doesn’t need to say something. He’s got no tattoos, never smoked, doesn’t drink, is drug free.

He’s also a ton of fun, playful, smart, and like most guys his age couldn’t recall where he was the day before and didn’t much care.

Among his other distinctions is the ability to focus on a goal and not quit until he achieved it. This was expressed principally through amusements. Once he decided a custom-painted skate board was the thing. He did the online research. Identified the supplier. Rallied the funds. Ordered it.

When the board arrived Cody spent a few days with it and was on to the next thing he wanted, which was an X-box game player. We were in NYC when that happened. He knew exactly where we needed to go to buy it at a reduced price. He wasn’t going to be pushed off the trail until it had been purchased. He spent years as a teenager engaged with it.

But you could tell by the way Cody effortlessly mastered Algebra, or repeated verbatim lines from movies he’d seen once or school books he found interesting, that there lay in Cody another intellectual and motivational gear. In middle school he tried a bit of theater, but he isn’t the kind of guy who likes to be that much at the center of attention. He wrestled, which showcased some of his natural strength and stamina, but also put him at the center of attention. He played football, an undersized interior lineman, but really enjoyed the workouts, the hitting, and the team culture.

You wondered as he matured what endeavor would really recruit Cody’s interest, where he would focus all that drive and intelligence, and what would demand more from him than he’d ever given before? It turned out that becoming a warrior was what Cody was really after.

The first we heard of the Marines was near the end of his junior year when Cody said he’d met the Marine recruiter from Cadillac, Staff Sgt. Morgan, and he liked what he heard. He allowed me and his Dad, Mike Bates, to escort him to other armed services recruiting offices just to give Cody different looks, but it was clear that exercise humored us and did nothing to dissuade him. Pam expressed her skepticism often and in some instances with emphatic vigor. But her protests were met with a shrug.

You could see why on Thursday, the afternoon prior to graduation, when the Marines were given time to spend with their families. Cody was a guy transformed. He’d lost at least 20 pounds and five inches off his waist. His gaze was straightforward, pleased, engaging, and he looked straight in the eyes of those he addressed. His posture and bearing were keen and focused. He didn’t stop talking, taking us on a tour of the base, explaining commands, providing insight on military campaigns of yore. At lunch he ate as though it were the first bites he’d had in days. His commanding officers assured parents, during a series of family-friendly briefings, that the Marines had indeed been fed. All of them, to a man, were as slimmed down as Cody.

He didn’t complain about any aspect of his training, and described a good bit of it as fun. His only negative comments were directed at several members of his Fox Company 2123 platoon who he said behaved in ways negligent to the Marine values of discipline, honor, leadership and respect. The Marine principles of guts and valor and duty were deep in him, as they’d clearly been before his arrival. He just knew that being a Marine was what he wanted to do.

Becoming a Marine is a personal choice with national and global significance. Let’s just say that my attention is focused on Afghanistan and has been for more than a year. If he’s considered the potential consequences, Cody has very plainly accepted them. The summons to duty, though, lies in the back of all the minds of people that love him, most dramatically Cody’s mother. At least at this point the path Cody chose for himself, a decision he made with characteristic speed and certainty, is working for him. Enlisting in the Marines at age 17. Graduating at age 19. And four years to find out what he wants to do with his Marine experience.

In a life of discipline and purpose, you get a dozen or so such opportunities to make such a momentous decision. Cody’s first looks to be a good one. We pray it leads to many more good choices.

Cody Bates graduates from Marine boot camp

— Keith Schneider