Recently, two unrelated events came together for me as a single issue. First was a news item pointing to California’s record breaking drought and explaining how motorists could still responsibly wash their cars by utilizing a commercial car wash that reclaims water. Second came a reader enquiry about the effect of gas prices on car wash counts.
It occurred to me that here were two natural resources on which the car wash industry is wholly dependent for its continued existence: water and oil. That we need water is indisputable. That we take care of it responsibly is evident. We use it as sparingly as possible, we save it, we treat it, we reclaim it, we reuse it. Our dependence on oil is less direct, but no less real. To say we need cars is to state the obvious. These cars need gasoline and plenty of it. As we’ve learned, when gas prices go up, consumers have fewer discretionary dollars to spend on optional services like car washing. In addition, they drive fewer miles, which also negatively impacts wash counts.
So, what to do? The answer seems clear: promote water conservation; push for expanded oil production. Not so fast. Support for one cause might conflict with support for the other. In an article in the August issue of Physics Today, authors Donald Turcotte, Eldridge Moores, and John Rundle — professors, all — discuss the process, efficacy, and consequences of “Super Fracking,” a technique in which large volumes of water are pumped into tight shale formations. The purpose is to fracture the rock formations and free up the oil and gas held there.
The authors point to several environmental concerns that result from using this technique, three of which pertain to water: The process uses so much water that supplies for other purposes can be severely reduced (cleanwateraction.org claims that each well uses between 2 million and 5 million gallons of fresh water); used water is permanently contaminated and is returned to the surface, creating disposal problems (according to Oil & Gas Monitor, many municipal water treatment plants are not designed to remove some of the contaminants); shallow aquifers are subject to contamination.
In his blog at exxonmobilperspectives.com, Ken Cohen begs for some, hum, perspective. The average amount of water used to fracture a well, he says, is about half that used every three or four weeks by a golf course. He points to a study by Harvard’s Energy Technology Innovation Policy Research Group that found that producing natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (i.e., super fracking) uses less water to produce the same amount of energy from coal, uranium, and biofuels. To produce 1 million BTUs, natural gas uses 0.6 to 1.8 gallons of water, compared to 1 to 8 gallons for coal. Nuclear power needs 10 gallons and ethanol from corn an eye-popping 1,000 gallons of water. He does not address water contamination nor does he discuss oil production, at least not in this post.
Whichever cause we decide deserves the greater priority — oil or water — the die has been cast. The trio of professors concludes that super fracking has proven to be so successful at economically producing oil and gas that its use will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.