Water, Brought to You by the Fossil Fuel Industry

The industry’s plan for the water it contaminates? Purify it and sell it back to consumers.

Ray Kemble of Dimock, Pennsylvania, show water samples collected from Dimock, Pennsylvania during a rally on fracking-related water investigations October 10, 2014 outside EPAs Headquarters in Washington, DC.
Ray Kemble of Dimock, Pennsylvania, shows collected water samples during a Washington, D.C., rally on fracking-related water investigations in 2014.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Excerpted from Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment by Wenonah Hauter, out now from the New Press.

Stifling heat and the fumes spewing from bumper-to-bumper SUVs and large luxury vehicles hit me in the face as I walked out of the airport in Dubai. Back in 2012, I was visiting one of the least sustainable cities on Earth, attending the industry-sponsored Global Water: Oil and Gas Summit, which featured representatives from Shell, Saudi Aramco, and Conoco-Phillips as speakers. Dubai was a fitting location for the bizarre grouping of polluters, resource extractors, and opportunists to meet and discuss the best way to divvy up and profit from using the world’s water for oil and gas development.

I was eavesdropping on a discussion about how the oil and water industries plan to coordinate profit-making activities in the future, taking advantage of a rare chance to hear a candid discussion about the long-term plans of the industry. Not hiding my identity, I quietly sat in the back furiously typing notes as I heard a frightening scenario for the future. Representatives from some of the most powerful companies in the world (Shell, Dow, General Electric, Veolia, CH2M Hill, and AES), as well as many smaller companies (such as Aquatech and Fountain Qual), were consummating an alliance focused on profiting from the overuse and pollution of water resources.

Even in Dubai, where solar energy should power the future, natural gas is the fuel of choice. Saeed Mohammad Al-Tayer, head of the government-run power and water provider and vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Energy, said at the conference that the sheikhdom currently generate 90 percent of its electricity from gas. Future plans call for reducing the gas use to 70 percent by using a mixture of coal, nuclear energy, and renewable sources to supplement it.

At the meeting, all pretensions of advancing beyond fossil fuels to an economy based on renewable energy were dropped. Never once did anyone mention gas as a bridge to the future. No ethical debate took place about using dwindling water resources to extract the fossil fuels that are ruining the stability of our planet’s climate. It was obvious that the meeting participants understood the consequences of fossil fuels and how the petroleum industry’s use of water contributes to the world water crisis. But overriding these concerns is their focus on short-term profit; they are willing to use as much water as it takes to drill for every last drop of fossil fuels.

Corporations such as the giant private water firm Veolia already have a reputation for ruthlessness. Many of the water companies pursuing a relationship with the oil and gas industry are the same ones that privatized water services, in countless cases allowing the poor to go thirsty. The privatization of water has met with forceful resistance across the world, even in the United States, and many privatization ventures have failed. But that has not prevented the industry from turning to another controversial business: providing water for fracking, and feeding off the oil and gas industry’s need to dispose of its polluted wastewater.

And it’s no wonder, considering that the oil and gas industry is using and polluting more water, and bringing more waste to the surface, than ever before in its history. Foreshadowing the overuse and contamination of water, industry representatives at the meeting enthused about the enormous volume of water required to frack at the scale necessary to recover oil and gas. They rarely mention that most of water injected underground is lost forever. Depending on the rock formation, between 5 and 50 percent returns to the surface in the initial days and weeks after fracking. In the Marcellus region, about 90 percent of the volume injected stays belowground.

A representative from Aquatech BV, a water technology company specializing in desalination and water reuse, spoke of the business opportunity presented by the large amounts of petroleum-generated wastewater. The latest figures seem to bear this out: Every day, U.S. oil and gas wells generate 2.4 billion gallons of wastewater, with another 8.1 billion gallons brought to the surface in the rest of the world, for a total daily volume of 10.5 billion gallons of polluted water. Enough poison liquid is produced around the world each year to cover the entire United States at a depth as thick as a penny.* And according to a representative from GE Power who spoke at the meeting, the volume of oil-and-gas-industry wastewater produced each year is increasing at a rate of 8 percent.

Wastewater is expensive to treat, and the higher the level of contamination, the more expensive the process. Processing wastewater requires sophisticated equipment, adding a significant cost to production of each well depending on how much contamination is removed. The likelihood that cost-sensitive operators will be willing to pay for this decontamination is remote. The petroleum industry has a long history of evading environmental and safety regulations to boost profits. It is much cheaper for the industry to simply inject its wastes underground, despite the fact that this causes earthquake swarms.

This issue of cost explains why one of the main focuses of this summit was figuring out how to make the public recognize “reused” water as a valuable resource consumers should be willing to pay for. Speakers at the summit spoke about how they must “educate” policymakers and the public about its worth. Among the solutions suggested for making wastewater more “valuable” was instituting freshwater pricing. They believe monetizing the value of water would give even wastewater higher worth in an era of water scarcity.

Using ocean water for oil and gas development was another hot topic at the summit. Desalination has become the holy grail for many industrial water users and other economic interests that want to profit from it.

Proponents of this expensive and energy-intensive technology rarely talk about the high concentrations of chemicals and salt dumped into the ocean during the process. At the summit, proponents discussed the additives needed for desalination—disinfection agents, coagulants, flocculants, anti-scalants, surfactants, acid-based cleaning agents, and corrosion inhibitors. No matter how sophisticated the desalination equipment may be, the “dispersion technology” to eliminate remaining waste uses the same old, failed approach: The solution to pollution is dilution.

Many of the senior engineers attending the meeting were well-intentioned but they were so narrowly focused on their area of expertise that they had lost sight of the big picture. Yet, executives from the water technology and petroleum industry seemed to view water scarcity with delight—a source of future profits. To someone truly rapacious, scarcity will not only make water more precious but also make the technologies for removing contaminants, or creating new sources of water, much more valuable. It is good for the corporate water business.

Copyright © 2016 by Wenonah Hauter. This excerpt originally appeared in Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Correction, June 14, 2016: This article originally misstated that oil and gas wells around the world create enough contaminated water to cover the entire country in a depth as thick as a penny. That amount of contaminated water is produced each year. (Return.)