Common Issues Face Fracking and Power Plant Cooling

If you follow current events and manage to gather your news without getting sucked into the scandal of the day, then you are likely familiar with these two burning hot environmental topics: 1 ) the new natural gas drilling process called high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking (here and here), which has already begun to pollute drinking water supplies and 2 ) the outdated, once-through cooling water intake systems used by half-century old power plants (here and here) that are destroying aquatic life. These two industrial processes - which are key issues for some of the nation's leading environmental groups like Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council - have unambiguous environmental impacts. In contrast, these two seemingly distinct issues share some similarities and challenges that may not be obvious at first glance:

1 ) When Energy and Water Collide
Both processes require a lot of water and can adversely impact water quality.

In shale-gas development, during drilling and fracking processes, water is a critical component.  In fact, fracking requires large quantities of water -- a single fracked well can require several million gallons per treatment.  After extraction, additional water, hundreds of millions of gallons per day, is consumed by refining and pipeline operations. In addition, fracking can pollute drinking water supplies and ecological resources. The contaminated "produced" water that surfaces with the extracted gas is just one potential threat to water resources and local ecology.

Where power plants are concerned, most of the United States' aging fleet of coal, oil, gas and nuclear plants also use enormous amounts of water, sucking in nearly 100 trillion gallons of water each year from the nation's rivers, lakes and estuaries through their antiquated once-through cooling (OTC) systems. In the process, these plants needlessly kill hundreds of billions of fish eggs, larvae and young fish as well as other aquatic life, including sea turtles. In an OTC system the cooling water is not reused, instead it is discharged at a higher temperature back into the water body from which it was withdrawn. This heated water can negatively impact the water quality and ecology of the host water body. Fortunately there is a technological solution and it is already in use at many new plants: Closed-cycle cooling (CCC) systems. "Wet" CCC recirculates cooling water, reducing withdrawals and fish kills by about 95% to 98%. Nearly all gas-fired plants and more than 75 percent of coal-fired plants built in the past 30 years use CCC.

2 ) Protecting Rather than Profiting from a Public Resource
Both of these water-dependent industrial processes use and abuse a public resource, water, at absolutely no cost to make a hefty profit. The natural gas and electric power industries and the companies that comprise them must fundamentally change the way they view water resources and immediately take decisive steps to better protect this shared resource.  Strong environmental stewardship is also in the economic interest of these industries and individual companies.

3 ) Will the Obama Administration and the EPA Step Up to the Plate?
The two issues share a common regulator: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In both cases, the EPA still has the opportunity to realize its mission by putting public and environmental health before industry profit. But under the current regulatory regime, industry is benefitting tremendously.

Where fracking is concerned, federal loopholes have allowed the natural gas industry to expand extremely quickly with little oversight or enforcement in some states like Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the EPA is still in the first stages of studying hydraulic fracturing to better understand its impact on drinking water and groundwater.

With power plant cooling, decades of delay have allowed the industry to continue its destruction of aquatic life while lining the pockets of corporate executives. The EPA has proposed a draft rule to address the aquatic impacts associated with power plant cooling water intake systems, but environmental groups say the rule lacks any real teeth and are urging the EPA to strengthen it.

Environmental advocates aren't the only ones looking to the EPA to send a strong and clear regulatory signal to the electric and gas industries. States also want to see tough national standards.  If the EPA drops the ball, then the burden falls on state regulators and local communities that simply lack the resources to monitor and regulate these industries.

4 ) The Natural Gas Nexus
Part of the impetus behind the drive to drill for natural gas is the role that natural gas is projected to play in power generation, especially given new availability of previously inaccessible sources.  As older, inefficient power plants retire, an increasing amount of the replacement power will be produced by new, more efficient gas-fired plants. While these new power plants will use closed-cycle cooling systems, the power industry does not get a free pass from: combating climate change, protecting environmental and public health, and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It is critical that we ensure that the so-called bridge fuel to a clean energy future - as natural gas is sometimes dubbed - doesn't end up becoming a bridge to nowhere by siphoning away financial resources from cleaner, carbon-free energy. ProPublica's excellent coverage and Josh Fox's powerful Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland have cast doubt on natural gas and its potential as a bridge fuel, given concerns and questions about the fuel's potential environmental costs and benefits. Several mainstream environmental groups, hopeful about the promise of natural gas as a bridge fuel, have recently launched public outreach campaigns highlighting potential problems. In addition to these groups, officials within the United States Energy Information Administration have expressed doubts and concerns about shale gas development.

These two important environmental issues aren't going away anytime soon. And while they may have some competition from self-destructing political figures and other scandals, your continued interest and engagement in these issues will help keep the media and the government focused on what really matters. So stay informed and take action.