Forget fracking concerns, water is taking center stage at last

I recently attended a meeting with a significant number of Texan chemical industry plant managers. I was very struck by how fast water availability is climbing up their agendas.

Until now, much of the worry of industrialists in the USA has concerned whether the full potential of hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas, shale oil and NGLs, would be exploited. Right now, I see no reason to doubt, pace New York and its moratorium, that fracking is here to stay. Many of my preoccupations persist. Give Americans a low cost source of fuel and the tendency to waste it will only grow. But the advent of cheap gas will help the power industry reduce its carbon footprint significantly compared with burning coal. And if the endgame is still a heftier proportion of renewables and nuclear, the USA’s embrace of fracking could be very beneficial for the planet.

It is also clear that the prospect of cheap energy is beginning to attract downstream manufacturing investments of all kinds into the USA. It is here that water availability could prove the rate limiting step for many new plants. The drought in the southern USA has made the topic of water availability much more visible to industry and to the public. Serious questions are rising to the fore:

– Whose water is it anyway? Both industry and communities lay urgent claim to water. There are different levels of claim on water resources. Who should have what fair share will become a key question in the years ahead if the effects of global warming grow and more extreme weather patterns result.

– How much water does a process actually consume? Water footprinting is still in its infancy in the USA. Efforts to reduce and recycle are often gleams in the eyes of plant managers. Understanding how much water is used and where it flows has never been more urgent.

– Will the new planned plants get the water permits they need? It will likely not be energy availability, but water that moves to the top of the agenda as local, state, and federal authorities decide on who gets what.

The whole topic of water will become one that obsesses us in the future. If you want a good overview of the issues and how to tackle them, a paper presented at our Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit by Patrick Bael of DSM can provide a good guide to the issues. Please contact me at to request a copy — a handling charge will apply.