Sunday, February 1, 2015

Conflicts in the food, energy, land and water nexus

There is growing concern over future food production and increas­ing competition for resources in the food, energy and water nexus are reflected in a new interest for investment in land and water. “I cannot farm myself out of this water problem,” says Mark Shannon, a farmer who in 2010 had to let his land in the San Joaquin valley be converted into a solar power field. This is a vivid illustration of the shortage of resources that will be a permanent feature in the future, and how land, water and energy interplay.

Eagle Ford in Texas is one of the fastest-growing shale oil and gas plays (a group of fields in the same geological zone) in the United States. It is also located in one of the driest parts of the country. Following the severe drought of 2011, concerns are mounting that oil and gas extraction is competing with irrigation for scarce water supplies. Drilling and fracturing rock formations to release oil and gas (fracking) uses enormous quantities of water: according to most estimates, each well in Eagle Ford consumes between fifteen to nineteen million liters of water. The economic returns from using groundwater for fracking are enormous and easily outstrip the returns of agriculture, so frackers can easily outbid farmers. If the groundwater owner can claim royalties on the output from oil and gas wells, using groundwater to frack wells could earn more than two thousand times more than growing maize.[i]

Not only oil and gas extraction needs a lot of water. Thermal power plants – fossil fuel-based and nuclear – require water, primarily for cooling. Per unit of energy produced, they are the energy sector’s most intensive users of water.[ii] In Europe, the repeated shut down of river-water cooled thermal power plants, in particular French nuclear reactors, during extended heat waves is a potent reminder of the water-energy nexus.[iii] Also, irrigation itself consumes a lot of electric­ity. Moving and treating water in California accounts for almost 20% of the state’s electricity.[iv]

In 2011, China had to make the tough choice between using water in the Three Gorges Dam to irrigate food crops or for energy. To safeguard food production the government released enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools for irrigation by June 10. China’s oil demand increased by 300,000 barrels a day to make up for lost hydropower generation from the water used for crops.[v]

The International Energy Agency notes in its 2012 World Energy Outlook that energy production uses some 15% of the world’s water withdrawals and that access to water is an important criterion for assessing the viability of energy projects. The availability of and access to water could pose severe limitations for shale gas development and power generation in parts of China and the United States, India’s power plants, Canadian oil sands production and for reser­voir pressures to support oil output in Iraq.[vi]

Shortage of one resource (land) can partly be compen­sated with another (water), but what happens if all of them are scarce? We see today that the market does not distribute scarce re­sources to those who are poor: if resources become scarcer the poor will be further disenfran­chised. In more extreme cases the rich will drive their cars with fuels made from food crops that the poor cannot afford to buy and lack the resources to produce themselves.

(Extract from Global Eating Disorder)

[ii] IEA 2012 ‘Water for energy, Is energy becoming a thirstier resource?’ World Energy Outlook 2012 IEA.
[iii] Research Councils UK India 2013 ‘Report: Roundtable on Applying Energy Water Food Nexus Thinking’. Research Councils UK India.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Bloomberg 2011 ‘World’s Biggest Dam Opens Sluices to Refill China’s Parched Yangtze, Lake’ 24 May 2011
[vi] IEA 2012 ‘Water for energy, Is energy becoming a thirstier resource?’ World Energy Outlook 2012. IEA.

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