Growing food needs will squeeze water resource for energy, Odum warns

Energy companies are becoming increasingly conscious of the competing demands for increasingly scarce water from their industry and agriculture, speakers said at a Houston conference Wednesday.

Food consumption is projected to increase 50 percent by 2030, straining the already-delicate relationship among water, food and energy, said Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, who spoke at the company’s Innovation Summit at its West Houston technology center.

“They are so inextricably linked, that if you don’t work on them together, you don’t get to the best long-term solution,” said Odum, who heads the Houston-based U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell. “It is important to us in terms of how we build this company’s long-term strategy.”

Shell calls this interconnection the stress nexus:

Water requires energy for treatment and transportation; energy requires water for production; food production requires water and energy.

More than 40 percent of irrigated crops in the United States are grown in areas with serious water shortages, said Charles Iceland, senior associate for markets and enterprise for the World Resources Institute, who estimates the same patterns hold true globally.

The stress nexus is especially critical in countries with higher population density.

India and Ethiopia, for example, could be hard-hit by the competing pressures, especially because of the importance of water in most electric power generation.

And energy demand that’s expected to double by 2050 will create water stress issues for 55 percent of power plants in Asia.

“We are going to have to undertake large-scale adaptation to be able to manage our energy production in a quickly deteriorating water landscape,” Iceland said.

Shell executives said the company is taking steps to conserve water.

It has established water purification facilities at a pilot plant that produces natural gas liquids in Qatar, for example, and uses recycled sewage for a plant in British Columbia, said Ed Daniels, Shell’s executive vice president of Global Solutions.

And Odum noted that Shell is trying to reduce its water footprint in natural gas drilling, building facilities in the Marcellus shale in the northeastern United States to capture and reuse its water.

Shale production typically  involves hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of water, sand and other substances into formations under high pressure to free trapped oil and gas.

Shell is working toward waterless fracturing, considered the next frontier in the technology, said Matthias Bichsel, the company’s director of Projects and Technology.  Alternative solvents as well as electric currents are being explored as potentially suitable alternatives to water, Bichsel said, and engineers have had some initial success on waterless hydraulic fracturing in a test project in Egypt.

The Innovation Summit  continues Thursday.