Guest commentary: World Water Day puts focus on new sustainability challenge

By Snehal Desai

What does water have to do with energy? Like the song says, you can’t have one without the other. Water and energy are inseparable because water is required to produce energy, and energy is required to produce water. That’s why the United Nations has designated “Water and Energy” as the theme of World Water Day 2014 on March 22. The energy-water nexus has been a topic of discussion in corporate and NGO boardrooms worldwide. The UN is bringing the dialogue to a global platform this year by recognizing that when we talk about energy, we should be talking about water as well.

As someone who works daily on improving technologies for better water and energy management, this year’s theme hits home. The statistics are shocking: Global water withdrawals are projected to increase by 55 percent through 2050 due to growing demands from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic use, according to the United Nations.

The response is clear. Government, working with industry, must expedite the adoption of sustainable water management to reap the long-term benefits of domestic energy. The best way to do this, however, is not always as clear.

Hydraulic fracturing and water management is at the frontline of the water-energy nexus. It is a hotly debated topic, not just in the media, but in corporate board rooms, environmental groups, family dinner tables and local pubs. While one side argues the benefits of job growth, lower natural gas prices, and domestic security, the other side answers with legitimate concerns surrounding groundwater contamination and overuse of scarce water resources. I feel it is important to weigh in on this debate to ensure the accuracy of shared information because this issue is too critical to let misperceptions go unchallenged.

The hydraulic fracturing process can use more than 5 million gallons of water per well. It’s just a bit less than the amount of water consumed by New York City in eight minutes. A variety of components, both organic and inorganic, go into the water used as a fracturing fluid to ensure the integrity of the shale formation and allow for the maximum amount of oil and gas recovery. The good news is that advanced water management technologies can remove contaminants from both the water injected into the well and the water produced from the well. Basically, you can run the water through a series of filters and systems to get virtually any water quality you want, up to, and including, the same purity as mountain spring water.

In fact, advances in reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration and resin technologies make it possible for flowback water to be recycled and reused for the next fracturing operation or for other industrial and agricultural needs, consequently reducing cost, preserving fresh water resources, and improving the sustainability of the hydraulic fracturing practice.

Hydraulic fracturing can be a safe operation when the appropriate amount of environmental stewardship and industry best practices are employed. The truth is that sustainable fracturing processes are in fact occurring across the country, and thorough effective regulation — not shutting down innovation where we need it — is the answer to incorrect or environmentally unsound practices.

Water is essential to all of our lives. But we don’t have to choose between clean water and energy resources. We just need to do our part to expedite the implementation of existing, cost-effective technology to ensure effective water management in fracturing practices. It’s time to tackle this challenge head-on and meet the emerging needs of the nexus together.

For more details on water management in unconventional shale oil and gas operations, please see “A New Sustainability Challenge: Water Management in Unconventional Shale Oil & Gas Operations”.

Snehal Desai is the global business director for Dow Water & Process Solutions, based in Edina, Minnesota. He is responsible for developing and implementing the growth strategy for DW&PS and leading the 1,800 people who work in the business.