Friday, August 17, 2012

A cool glass of oil

Each day the commodities markets tell us the price of oil and gas. There is no commodities market for water. Here in the United States, even in the West where water is scarce and deserts plentiful, the assumption is that water will be there when we are thirsty.

The great U.S. drought of 2012 is second only to the great Dust Bowl drought of July 1934 in terms of the area of the contiguous U.S. covered by moderate or greater drought. Drought, in a way that nothing else can, teaches us the precious nature of water. Where there is water there is life. Where it disappears, so does life.

In the face of this drought, however, energy companies continue to pursue fracking, a process that uses huge quantities of water to extract natural gas and oil from underground rock.

The Denver Post reports, "Each well drilled requires 1 million to 5 million gallons of water, and more when they are refracked." Drillers may need even more, the Post says. State natural resources planners say they're working with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to calculate, within the next week or so, how much water may be available for oil and gas drilling.

The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio reports that drilling companies' growing thirst for water to "frack" Utica shale wells could soon be quenched by water from state parks and forests. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulates both parks and rivers and mining. It can and very well may sell drinking water to use for oil extraction.

Environmental groups argue that fracking could strain sources for drinking water, boating and wildlife. "These streams and watercourses are our playgrounds and our drinking water," said Cheryl Johncox, director of the Buckeye Forest Council. "I see this sell-off of our state resources as incredibly short-sighted." Given the record temperatures baking the Midwest into powdered dust this summer, that could be the understatement of the decade.

We know too well whose interests rise to the top and whose sink to the bottom when Big Oil takes on the public interest. It is incredibly short-sighted for individuals to sell the water rights from their streams and ponds, but for now, it is a highly valuable private good they can exchange for whatever it will bring.

What's really bizarre is that some cities in Colorado are selling "excess" drinking water, an asset absolutely necessary to sustain life, to oil and gas companies. Moreover, they are worrying about the fine print of these sales contracts in the midst of a drought.

Don't worry, they say. There is plenty of water to go around. And if there isn't, now or in the future, maybe on hot days people can just sit down and enjoy a nice cool glass of oil.

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