Obama's Energy Plans Fail to Address Our Water Woes

In a matter of weeks the Obama Administration will propose legislation to address the nation’s environmental and employment problems, with an energy plan that promotes both alternative energy and green jobs.  But while Obama’s plan details a genuine commitment to clean energy and addressing climate change, it is silent on the related implications for the nation’s water supply. Today’s New York Times includes a letter from Network For New Energy Choices (NNEC) on this issue, which you can read here, but much more reporting needs to be done as the President-elect prepares to appoint his energy and environmental team.

While scientific and industry experts understand the often devastating conflict between energy production and water protection, energy needs are routinely discussed without reference to water in our legislative and public policy debates. As he prepares to take office, Obama and his advisors should be urged to incorporate the fact that the U.S. is quickly running out of fresh water into their plans for new power plants and increasing biofuels production.

Almost half the water used in the U.S. today goes to thermo-electric power plants, with a typical coal-fired plant requiring close to 300 million gallons each day just to operate. In state after state, it is increasingly common for power plants to be shut down or denied permits because of the threat they pose to water resources. While Obama’s energy plan calls for the development of large-scale “clean coal” power plants, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that use of this technology will increase a plant’s water use by 90 percent. In other words, a coal-fired power plant that currently uses 12 million gallons an hour will use 22.8 gallons an hour if it converts to “clean coal,” which involves removing carbon gas during the energy production process and storing it underground.

Power plants also have devastating effects on aquatic life, as exemplified in a case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court December 2. In this particular case, a power company is fighting an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that would require it to install technology to stop the slaughter of billions of fish, fish larvae, and other aquatic creatures each year. With the depletion of fish stocks from our rivers and oceans, the commercial fishing industry drying up, and the alarming environmental costs of ocean fish farming, the huge role of power plants in exacerbating this crisis is another issue for the new administration to address as quickly as possible.

And then we have biofuels. As a senator, Obama was a strong supporter of biofuels, including voting for tax credits and biofuels infrastructure legislation. His current energy plan calls for the increase of the federal renewable fuel mandate to include 60 billion gallons of “advanced biofuels” by 2030. Obama’s plan stipulates that advances in biofuels include the use of sustainable feed-stocks, which would presumably move us away from corn ethanol. That’s an important point because the increase of corn production under the pressures of the ethanol market can seriously threaten scarce water resources as corn crops are expanded to drier areas of the country. In addition, agricultural runoff from the Midwest corn-belt has created a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that continues to expand each year. You can read NNEC’s recent letter about this issue here. You can read our report on biofuels here.

To ensure that the administration’s planned pursuit of advanced biofuels does not do more harm than good, President Obama should direct the EPA to quickly create a sustainability standard that is applied to all biofuels, regardless of the type of feedstock used to produce them. Such a standard would be used to “screen” all proposals to increase the production of biofuels, measuring their anticipated benefits against foreseeable effects on land use, soil quality, water quality and availability, wildlife, and biodiversity. Until such a sustainability standard is in place, the current renewable fuel mandate should be frozen.

This year the EPA was supposed to make public a model for analyzing the greenhouse gas impact of biofuels production and use, including direct and indirect land use changes. Quantifying biofuels greenhouse gas emissions is important to making sure that taxpayer money going into biofuels expansion will actually have a positive effect on climate change. The most recent scientific research shows that when land use changes are included in these calculations, biofuels emissions are, in fact, worse than those of regular gasoline. The deadline for the EPA to create that model has now passed, but establishing reliable, science-based criteria for determining biofuels’ impact on climate change should be a priority for the new administration before moving ahead with these technologies.

Water levels in the Great Lakes, and in the nation’s major underground aquifers, are declining rapidly, while long term drought covers broad swaths of the nation. According to the Government Accounting Office, water managers in at least 36 states anticipate shortages by 2013. Planning for our long-term water needs is obviously essential. What is not quite as obvious is that energy planning must take water use into account.

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