The oil industry's determination to maximise profits is compromising our most precious of resources - water.
We all know that fossil fuels are polluting our world. Direct emissions from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and the associated destruction of carbon sinks to source them, along with exhausts from fossil fuel-powered vehicles and machinery, are raising the proportion of CO2 in our atmosphere to a level never before observed in the geological record. But, pollution from fossil fuels goes a lot further than this. Our "addiction to oil" is all-encompassing - it reaches into every aspect of our lives, and, our environment. The chemicals we use to fertilise our crops, to kill 'pests' and 'weeds', to pollute our soil, our rivers and our lakes are all petroleum based. From oil we create the plastics that fill our homes, our landfills and choke our oceans. We have already been paying dearly for this addiction.
But, now we are witnessing a new kind of absurdity taking place. As oil is getting more difficult and costly to source, those with a vested interest in the current oil infrastructure have taken to using precious clean water to force oil out of failing land-based drilling sites - and lots of it.
An example from Canada gives a good introduction to the activity:
They get it from the same rivers and underground aquifers that farmers and even towns and cities use. The oil companies force the water down into the reservoirs. The water creates pressure to force the oil up to the surface. They call it water flood injection. A rough rule of thumb is it takes a barrel of water to get a barrel of oil.The "rough rule of thumb" mentioned in the above quote (from an older article) has been updated with more official data in May this year:
Companies also use fresh water to make steam to force petroleum out of the oil sands and to make mud for drilling. There are no clear numbers on how much the industry actually uses but last year it had permits for more than 278 billion litres of fresh water. That's more water than is used every year by three of Alberta's largest cities, and the companies get their water for free. - Progress.org (emphasis in original article)
The industry consumes 2–4 barrels of water for every barrel of oil it produces, according to the report. - Environmental Science and TechnologyIn the last decade the price of oil has skyrocketed.
Oil prices have retreated after breaching the $96-a-barrel mark and analysts expect volatility ahead.This puts pressure on engineers to ramp up production from tired wells, and leads the oil industry to consider more 'difficult' fields as increasingly attractive options. Back in February a peak oil critic voiced his opinion that oil production could in fact continue all the way to 2050 - through technologies such as water injection:
Crude oil fell $1.04 to $93.49 a barrel by end of trade in New York after hitting $96.24 in overnight trade. Brent crude shed 91 cents to $89.72.
Even as prices retreated, analysts said that crude oil would probably break through $100 a barrel this year. - BBC
The biggest catalyst for oil's seemingly remorseless rise has been the simplest economic driver there is: the balance between demand and supply.
Demand is at an all-time high, fuelled by the continued breakneck economic expansion of the Indian and Chinese economies.
With more than a billion people in each country, and both economies growing fast, manufacturers and consumers are sucking in energy at an ever-increasing rate.
... Analysts worry global demand for oil is so intense that supplies may not keep pace.
Demand will rise by an average of 2.2 million barrels a day next year, the International Energy Agency says, compared with the 1.5 million-barrel rise seen in 2007.
It says annual demand will rise 2% up to 2012, while other projections suggest demand could soar from about 90 million barrels a day to as much as 140 million over 25 years. - BBC
Saleri spoke a day after energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, a proponent of the "peak oil" theory and a critic of Saudi Arabia's production statistics, called for better industry data to prove that crude output is on the wane.In other words, although some question to what extent - water injection can significantly increase the transfer of oil from below ground into our atmosphere and our environment, whilst simultaneously intensifying our escalating water supply issues.
Key to delaying the decline in global production is squeezing more from oil fields, Saleri said.
Oil companies are forced to leave significant volumes of crude in wells, because draining extra barrels is either too difficult or expensive. The current industry record for development is about 35 percent of reserves pumped, with the remaining 65 percent left in the ground.
High-tech advances and use of water injection to push crude oil out of deposits should put that percentage closer to 70 percent, Saleri said. - Reuters
"This is just a complete waste of water," says Bester. "We're seeing towns to the east of us that are running out of water. We're seeing our countryside dry up. Dug outs and river's levels going down. Let's stop and take a look at what we're doing."The most alarming thing with this kind of water use is that, unlike some applications, the water pumped deep into the earth can mean it is essentially exited from the hydrological cycle. In other words, it is potentially pushed, or pumped, beyond our reach.
Don Bester heads a group called the Butte Action Committee, a collection of about 100 land owners and farmers. For the last decade, they fought oil companies that want to use fresh water for free. The drier it gets, the more members the group gets.
The committee's latest battle is with Corsair, a small oil company that owns several dozen wells in the Caroline area. He has permission from a provincial energy board to use up to a million litres of fresh water a day over the next 30 years from the North Saskatchewan River [for free]. The Butte Action Committee is trying to appeal it.
The project is a big deal for Corsair President Ray Smith and his partners. It's their main investment. Pumping water into their wells will increase by two to three times the amount of oil they can get out of the ground.
"We have clearly determined that we can maximize the recovery of the reserves owned by all Albertans if we inject water into the pool as compared to another fluid," says Smith.
"It all comes down to economics with them as well," says Bester. "They say, 'Oh, we need the water to produce oil.' Well we need the water for our cattle. We need water to feed people."
... "It's very critical, very political and very emotional," says Stazinski. "The competition for water is here and we need to just start dealing with it. And it's not going to be easy. There are going to be winners and losers here." - Progress.org
Don Bester spent 30 years in the oil business before he took up farming. He says the industry doesn't just use water, it takes it right out of the ecosystem because when they force fresh water into underground oil reservoirs, it stays in deep pools for thousands of years. It's gone from the water cycle."And where it isn't 'gone forever', it's showing up where we don't want it.
"That water cycle keeps cycling this water that we have got throughout the cycle. It evaporates. It rains. It evaporates. It rains. But if you remove it, it's gone," says Bester. "We don't know the effect of what we've been doing." - Progress.org
Because oil companies have not devised a way to cleanse the water of clay and petroleum chemicals after use, most of the water never returns to the river. Instead, it is pumped into some of the world’s largest dikes for near-permanent storage - Environmental Science and Technology
Alberta’s oil sands (174 billion barrels) are not only the world’s largest capital project but now represent 60 per cent of the world’s investable oil reserves. But to produce one million barrels of oil a day, industry requires withdrawals of enough water from the Athabasca River to sustain a city of two million people every year. Despite some recycling, the majority of this water never returns to the river and is pumped into some of the world’s largest man-made dykes containing toxic waste. - Running out of Steam? Oil Sands Development and Water Use in the Athabasca River, May 2007 (2.2mb PDF)
Water injection, or 'water flooding' is used worldwide. As oil flows decrease, water use will, conversely, increase. Even the seemingly limitless oil fields in arid Saudi Arabia are said to have seen the use of water injection, a topic of grave concern for those monitoring the world's energy stores. In Iraq, a region with a very volatile water situation, water injection is a critical element of oil production. The same goes for Indonesia and Oman, etc. etc.
Just to keep things in perspective, however, the oil industry's use of water today is a bare fraction of that of our contemporary monocrop farming systems (the biggest consumer of water in the world, by far). Although our food choices have the greatest impact on water consumption than any other, it must be noted that the increased demand for oil, in combination with a peaking of oil supplies, may see this form of water
consumption destruction become the straw that broke the... er... camel's back.
In many parts of the world we're running at a continual water deficit - using water faster than it can be naturally replenished. We are already seeing a clash of interests as politicians make difficult choices in priorities - having to choose our future health and the environment over the industry desire to maintain, or indeed grow, the status quo. For example, we recently saw plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in Kansas rejected due to the CO2 emissions it would release. These kind of tough decisions will become easier and increasingly obvious as resource stresses magnify - but it's far better to make these decisions early. We need to transition to an oil free economy - and fast. As we've written before, it's far better to tailor our society now to work within environmental limits, then to wait for environmentally imposed consequences.
We need to keep the oil in the ground, and our water clean and available. After all, with a bit of imagination, there's a lot you can do with water.Further Reading: