Big oil could help tackle the water shortage in the western United States by repurposing existing infrastructure to help transport clean water to the areas most in need. Innovations such as this highlight how oil and gas majors, and their infrastructure and knowledge, will always be relevant even in a country continually pushing for decarbonization and renewables. As severe weather events appear to be happening on a more regular basis, hitting the same areas of the U.S. year after year, flooding and drought is not the only thing that the western United States needs to be concerned about. At present, Louisiana is facing severe water shortages. Groundwater levels in the state are decreasing more rapidly than in other areas across the country and underground aquifers are at an all-time low.
This is largely due to decades of heavy use, the lack of regulation in water use by the industrial and the agricultural sectors, and little action by legislative bodies to respond to the issue in the past.
In addition, following the devastating effects of Hurricane Ida, much of Louisiana has been left without power and clean water for weeks. This reflects the poor resilience of the existing utility infrastructure in the wake of a severe weather event, an issue that Louisiana has been facing continually over the last decade. This also adds to the existing scarcity issue, as greater investment is needed to strengthen the West’s water system
The reason for the current water crisis, following Ida, is largely down to the destruction of power lines needed to provide water systems with the electricity to pump groundwater and run treatment parts. While the state mandates that all water systems must have backup generators, this rule has been largely ignored, and those that do exist have failed due to ongoing power cuts following the storm.
The infrastructure failures have arisen due to aging water systems and a lack of maintenance. Around 60 percent of Louisiana’s water system is over 50 years old, and most are poorly maintained. Studies from the Louisiana Department of Health suggest that 831 water systems, providing water to 606 communities, had 4,582 violations of water quality standards.
With the local and federal government doing little to respond to the issue of aging utility infrastructure, not just in Louisiana but across the West and the rest of the U.S., an unlikely candidate could provide the resources and infrastructure needed to fix the problem. Oil majors across the U.S. have decades of experience carrying fuel safely across huge distances to communities across the country. In fact, the U.S. is home to an astounding 2.3 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, most of which start or end in oil giants Texas and Louisiana.
There has already been talk of repurposing disused gas pipelines to transport renewable energy such as hydrogen, as the government and international bodies push for the shift away from fossil fuels. But now, Big Oil could also provide the infrastructure and expertise needed to fix the U.S.’s water scarcity problem.
Experts responding to water scarcity in the U.S. agree that a federal approach to approving and constructing a major new water pipeline would be lengthy and expensive, likely to take decades to complete by which time the water problem will have worsened. In addition, following recent action taken against the proposed construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, it could be canceled before it was ever finished. Ultimately, drought-prone areas such as Arizona, California, and Nevada are likely to run out of water far before a pipeline can be built if the issue is not tackled.
Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen made a compelling argument this month suggesting that as well as repurposing oil and gas infrastructure for the transportation of renewable energy, the infrastructure could be used to capture and transport water to the areas in the U.S. most in need of potable water sources. They suggest that “Utilizing existing infrastructure is the only approach that meets the urgency of the moment.”
They highlight the successful reuse of existing pipelines for new purposes and the experience that oil majors already have in constructing, setting up, and, where necessary, changing the purpose of their pipeline infrastructure. Therefore, using disused oil and gas pipelines, as renewable alternatives become more prevalent, could be the answer to America’s water scarcity problem.
Repurposing pipelines would be infinitely cheaper than constructing a new mega-pipeline. The existing expertise of oil and gas firms would support the repurposing projects and could attract federal funding as a sustainable emergency response action. In addition, it would avoid oil and gas pipelines eventually falling into disuse thereby putting the infrastructure to waste.
Oil and gas pipelines are being repurposed or have the potential to be repurposed for various other energy delivery options. So, could the potential of these huge existing structures win Big Oil the favor of skeptics as well as helping to support the green energy movement without totally disowning fossil fuels? As strategies for hydrogen transportation in old gas lines become more prevalent, so too could alternative uses such as water and other energy transportation.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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