Water: Fair shares for all?

I live in the US Southwest, in the incredibly-beautiful desert state of New Mexico. Living here makes you intensely water conscious. In my city of Santa Fe, we watch anxiously to see if the surrounding mountains are receiving any snow cover in the winter. We watch even more anxiously to see if summer thunderstorms will create wild fires that threaten our homes and livelihoods. In the past few years, I am told by neighbors (I am a newcomer) that snow cover has been unusually light, and there have been some serious fires, both here and in surrounding states.

So it was particularly depressing to read a lengthy New York Times article on the Colorado River (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/us/colorado-river-drought-forces-a-painful-reckoning-for-states.html?hpw&rref=us), which is an important source of water for New Mexico. The article says that the flow of the river is declining, and within a couple of years, we may well see its available water being rationed. The perils confronting the Western US as a result of this decline in its only major river are exacerbated by a surge in population in some of the states in this region.

But the Western US is not alone in confronting a water shortage. Many other states are waking up to the threat of reduced water supply combined with a rise in population. Texas is one of them, and it is a hub of the oil and gas and petrochemical industry worldwide. To me, it is not clear that any concerted planning is occurring to confront the years of drought that might lay ahead.

Shale gas discoveries, and the low gas prices they have spawned, have made many in the US chemical processing sector, including petrochemical production, rather blasé about the need for energy conservation. If something is cheap, Americans generally will use it carelessly and in excess. The much heralded renaissance of the US petrochemical industry is founded on cheap energy, and, to some extent, and unfortunately, on commodity products (see my blog).

Water availability gets much less coverage, but I believe it could turn out to be a potent threat to that very same US petrochemical renaissance. Over the coming years, we may well see very cheap process economics where energy is concerned, with galloping inflation where water is concerned. Desalination may go some way to improving supply, but investment in this source of new water will probably wait on government policy and action, and will bring its own problems — largely related to the concentrates produced in the process.

The broader question, which is being tackled by a few brave chemical companies, is to determine the fair share of the available water that should be drawn off by the chemical industry. DSM, a signature to the UN CEO Water Mandate, has been considering this question longer than most. In a paper delivered at one of Chemical Industry Roundtables’ conferences, the company tackled this very issue (http://chemroundtables.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/DSM-@GCIS-2012.pdf). To make progress on this issue, you need to look at the available freshwater, your own water footprint, the number of months when your water footprint availability starts to exceed the available water running off from various sources. Then you have to set boundaries on your consumption. It is a complex calculation, but it is possible to do.

And it is important to do. In an era of drought, what should be industry’s call on water compared with ordinary citizens? Who should recycle and economize first? These difficult questions will rise to head the list of sustainability concerns in the years ahead in the all-important US chemical industry. But is the industry any where near to being able to answer them?