Our Heroes: Amy Hardberger of St. Mary's School of Law

Amy Hardberger recently joined the faculty at St. Mary’s School of Law as an assistant professor, where she teaches water, property and environmental law and policy courses. She is also a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Previously, Hardberger served as an attorney for EDF, where she headed a successful campaign to stop the authorization of TXU Energy’s planned coal plants, as well as a number of other initiatives related to water and energy environmental policies.

A native Texan, Hardberger grew up in a family of farmers and ranchers with a deep sense of appreciation for the state’s scarce water resources.

From her office in San Antonio, Hardberger joined us recently over the phone for a conversation about water and energy policy, how the two are linked, the effects of the drought and her path as a geologist, attorney, environmentalist and professor.

Below you can read excerpts of our conversation from our edited discussion. You can also listen to the whole 20-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above right) or by downloading this podcast episode.

Your work focuses very much on the interconnections between water and energy, a crucial connection that continues to be overlooked by the public, at large, and by policy makers. What exactly is this nexus and why is it so important?

Well when we first started looking at the energy/water nexus, when I was at EDF, our focus really was on the amount of water that was used to generate power and the amount of energy that’s used to meet, move, and treat water, as well as for in-home uses; so hot water for your shower or something like that.

As I've gotten into it over the years, it’s expanded a little bit to also look at things like water use for hydraulic fracturing. When we first started doing the energy, working on the energy/water nexus, fracking wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as it is now. So I've sort of added that to the portfolio.

It’s extremely important because the sustainability in both of these areas is sort of critical to our survival and they are so intertwined, yet they are planned completely differently. And that’s because in the past there was probably plenty to go around of both and now there isn’t.

So sometimes we have these unintended consequences where we - for example, build a new power plant in an area where there isn’t enough water to sustain it, or want to create a new water infrastructure system, without really considering what the energy requirement would be.

So going forward, if we want to have a true sort of sustainability we are going to need to start looking at impacts outside just the one sector that we're talking about, and the energy/water sort of interrelationship is a really good place to start.

So a large portion of the country experienced this summer the worst drought of the last fifty years. I think the effects of the drought were pretty severe in Texas as well as where you are. While there was plenty of coverage in the media about the effects of the drought on agriculture and farmers and food prices, which is certainly an important issue, the impact of the drought on energy continued to be overlooked. Can you tell us about the effects of the drought on energy production and consumption if you have any specific examples in Texas, in particular?

Yeah so, whenever there is a drought situation there is more strain on all sectors, whether it be agriculture or local use. But the strain on energy is huge, partially because the more energy we use the more water we actually need. So if there’s not water in the first place and it’s very hot, which is usually the way it is under drought conditions, we want to turn our air conditioner up more, use more energy, but then that requires more water. So it becomes this very sort of difficult feedback loop and a lot of times we don’t see good media coverage of that. There have been a few exceptions to that, in the, I believe it’s the 2008 drought in the Southeast, some plants actually had to shut down.

Here, in Texas, this past summer actually wasn’t quite as bad as the summer before. So 2011. And during the 2011 drought, there were some - from the statewide, you know, sort of electric group, some warnings that if the drought continued for a certain amount of time, there would be power plants that would have to be shut down either because of lack of water or because the water that was available became so shallow that the temperature was too high to be able to be used in a power plant. So when you look at a situation like that you realize that energy security is really at play here, and that there is the actual threat that a power plant would have to shut down under low water conditions.

And you mentioned before the issue of fracking and how this technique to extract natural gas uses a lot of water and has lots of impacts on water quality, as well. Can you tell us about the status of fracking in Texas, and what’s going on right now?

Well, Texas has a lot of fracking going on right now. That is the short answer. And it is growing every day. You know the first area that we really saw an increase in fracking is up in the Barnett Shale area, around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And that area, the impacts that we saw had a lot to do with the location, the co-location of drill rigs in an urban area, so things like noise and vibrations. Water wasn’t as big of a concern. Certainly it’s always a concern from a quality standpoint, but from a quantity standpoint it wasn’t.

And then, over the last three or four years, we've had a huge, huge boom of fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale, which is in Southeast Texas, actually right near the San Antonio area, between sort of two to three hours from here, depending on which area you are going to. And that really has changed the conversation considerably throughout the state on fracking because of the limited water resources in that area and the volume of wells that are going in. In the Eagle Ford or in any frack you have anywhere between three and five million gallons per well that’s needed for a frack job. So that’s needed in a fairly short period of time, usually four to six weeks, and if hundreds of wells are going in on a weekly basis, each pumping that amount, you can imagine what, at least the short-term and most likely the long-term water quantity impacts are.

So when I first found out that they were drilling in the Eagle Ford, about four years ago. I thought, oh no, what’s going to happen now? And I'm not sure that we know the answer to that question yet.