Which Does California Need More: Oil or Water?

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Oil companies are grabbing an increasing share of the water in California’s Central Valley. Last year, oil companies took 83% of the district’s water allocation, according to new data published by High Country News.

Year by year, around the world, oil is getting scarcer. The oil industry would never consider drilling for oil five miles below the sea floor if there were still any cheaper choices. Oil companies aren’t masochists.

But as oil becomes more scarce, it is harder to get out of the ground. And as it gets harder to get out, it takes more and more water to push it out.

How much more water does the oil industry take now?

In Kern County, California, it now takes 8 barrels of fresh water to get out 1 single barrel of oil. Twenty five years ago, in 1985, when oil was plentiful, it took only about half that amount, four and a half barrels of water. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

In regions like California that are subject to drought, and will be even more so in the future, as climate change exacerbates the tendency to desertification, oil production is beginning to battle human needs for fresh water supplies.

Not only does oil production compete directly for fresh water, but that fresh water that the oil companies use, after the oil companies are done with it, is no longer clean water.

Once the drilling is done, and the oil extracted, oil production generates an even larger outflow of contaminated “produced water.” This includes some water that returns to the surface after it’s been injected into the ground, but much of the outflow is simply a consequence of producing oil from an aging oilfield.

Much of the “produced water” in the west-side oilfields of Kern County contains naturally occurring heavy metals and other inorganic compounds associated with the oil.

Why don’t they clean it before giving it back to us? According to Matt Trask, a California energy analyst, cleaning the produced water can cost up to three to five times as much as buying water on the open market — and sometimes 10 times as much.

So, after taking in 8 barrels of fresh water to extract the 1 barrel of oil, the oil companies give us back 9 barrels of now contaminated “produced water”.

Oil production threatens California’s water supply.

Image: Only the emptiness remains
Source: High Country News

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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