A BNA Interview: Gleick Discusses Water Quality, Quantity, Link to Energy Production

Peter Gleick co-founded and leads the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., an independent nongovernmental organization specializing in water, sustainability, and economic and environmental justice. Gleick spoke with Bloomberg BNA's Susan Bruninga at World Water Week in September about issues of water quantity and quality and their nexus with energy development. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

BBNA: The World Resources Institute released a report recently saying water scarcity could have a significant impact on the ability to develop shale oil and gas reserves. Do you see that happening?

Gleick: I do think there are very serious water issues associated with fracking that are not being addressed by industry or the regulatory agencies. I think the biggest issues are related to water quality and contamination rather than quantity.

There are regions where water quantity and availability could be a constraining factor. The water quality concerns are associated with the risks to groundwater from the actual fracking operations, the risks to groundwater from the extraction phase of the process once the wells are in operation and the risks to groundwater and surface water from the way we choose to dispose of wastewater.

Wastewater is really produced in two forms. What we call flowback water and produced water. Often 90 percent of what comes back up is water, and that water is the quality of the water that's underground and it's often very saline and has heavy metals. What's in it depends on the geology, and that's a very large volume of water. And depending on how we deal with it, it can cause all sorts of contamination problems.

BBNA: Right now we deal with it by injecting it in underground injection wells.

Gleick: Sometimes we deal with it by reinjecting it in Class II wells, which are for hazardous materials, and they're supposed to be deep underground injection to sealed geological formations. Sometimes it's dealt with by putting it in evaporation ponds on the surface where the water evaporates off and we're left with whatever is left. That risks contaminating surface water and groundwater if there's overflow, if there are floods, if there's leaching into groundwater. Sometimes we send it to wastewater treatment plants.

Some municipalities have been asked to accept produced return flows from fracking. Sometimes produced water is just somewhat saline, and wastewater treatment plants perhaps can handle it. But sometimes they have radioactive materials, sometimes they have heavy metals.

BBNA: The issue of corrosives and other contaminants and how they could affect infrastructure was raised by an official with UK Water as that country considers fracking.

Gleick: Municipalities are typically not prepared to deal with [produced water]. In the U.K., they limit and monitor the chemicals that can be used in the fracking process itself to things they've determined to be nontoxic. We don't do that in the United States.

BBNA: We don't identify the chemicals in fracking fluid because it's considered proprietary.

Gleick: In the United States, we don't even have a modicum of transparency about the chemicals that are being used nor do we monitor, either beforehand or afterward, water quality, either natural water quality or the quality of the produced water.

BBNA: The research seems to be all over the place regarding the impacts of fracking on groundwater.

Gleick: In some places there's no evidence of adverse impacts, but in other places, the more we look, the more we find. Part of the problem in the United States is we've not been looking very hard or very long and now that we're beginning to look, we're beginning to find problems, and more and more research is identifying groundwater contamination.

BBNA: The U.S. doesn't really have a policy on fracking at the national level and is leaving the matter to the states. Is that a good idea?

Gleick: It's a good idea if the states do a good job universally. It's a bad idea if some states do a good job and some states do a bad job. We have this debate all the time [about federal vs. state regulation]. There are certain things that are too important to be left to the more arbitrary, inconsistent nature of state legislatures.

BBNA: Are we going to have to have a catastrophe to get the federal government to step in?

Gleick: It sometimes does take a catastrophe. Interestingly, industry, when all of a sudden faced with 50 state standards, will ask for consistency, will move toward and support a federal standard. We don't see that yet in fracking. But that could happen.

BBNA: We are seeing a lot of companies step up and try to use sustainable practices and recognize the need to reduce their water use in hydraulic fracturing. Some are saying they don't want freshwater. It doesn't work for them, and that the water needs to be a little brackish. Others are doing more to reuse and recycle their produced water. Does that offer encouragement?

Gleick: I do think industries with foresight are going to identify the water-related risks and are going to work toward reducing them. They're going to work to minimize the amount of freshwater required to reduce conflicts with local communities. They're going to treat wastewater to reduce the risk of contamination and threats to their reputation. That's the whole idea behind corporate social responsibility—to understand risks and work to reduce those risks. Ignoring those risks might have a short-term economic benefit but it opens the door to a very serious threat to corporate reputations and ultimately corporate bottom lines. And the smart corporations will proactively try and reduce those risks.

BBNA: A number of communities are stepping up to impose bans on fracking. Is that a movement that's going to grow? Will it prompt a national policy. How do you see that movement affecting fracking in this country?

Gleick: I think the failure to address fracking at the national level has encouraged more local conversations about these things. I do think it's here to stay in the sense that there's money to be made by industry and some communities may impose serious restrictions, others may not. I don't think we'll see fracking everywhere. I don't think it will be economic everywhere. I don't think it will be accepted by local communities everywhere but there's a lot of activity now in the oil and gas business.

BBNA: The U.K. has a good jump on regulating fracking because they're not doing it yet, and they can look at others' mistakes and put some regimes in place that will be more protective.

Gleick: Europe and the U.K. have always had a different approach to environmental regulation than the U.S. They take pretty seriously what we call the precautionary principle, which is until you can prove something is safe—use of a chemical, use of a particular process—you can't do it. In the U.S., it's the other way around. Unless you can prove it's bad, it's permitted. So we have all sorts of chemicals in our day-to-day use, and in our products and in our industrial activities that have not been proven safe, that we let people and corporations use that have not been permitted for use in Europe.

BBNA: What is the status of fracking in California?

Gleick: There is very little going on—a few hundred wells mostly in the southern Central Valley. And it's oil, not gas. There is discussion about a very extensive expansion, but the geology is quite different in California than it is in Pennsylvania or Texas or Wyoming. And it's not clear that the processes used there are going to apply very well in California. It hasn't been that economic.

BBNA: What is your research showing about the risks in California?

Gleick: We've identified water quality risks, depending on where you do it. California is quite a diverse area. Some regions are relatively water rich and many are water poor. A lot of the potential oil and gas fields are in pretty water-short parts of the state where there's already competition for water availability. There are risks to groundwater from wells that fail or the fracking process itself, risks to water quality associated with flowback water and produced water. We have a number of what are called unlined pits in which wastewater is disposed from oil and gas operations. They're basically open, unlined pits and frankly they ought to be banned. We don't recommend policy very often, but unlined pits ought to be banned. It's a serious direct threat to groundwater.

BBNA: We talk a lot about the nexus between energy and water, but it seems that the food component needs to be part of the conversation.

Gleick: We're doing an eight-month project to look at energy, water and food, and in particular, as part of this oil and gas question, what are the links between water requirements for the different sectors. Is there going to be competition between the energy sector and the agricultural sector for water?

Is the energy sector going to produce a new source of water for agriculture because of this produced water? Suppose there's a produced water that's of a decent quality or treated to a decent quality, is that a source of water for farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley?

There are a couple of examples of where oil and gas producers are actually giving wastewater to farmers for agricultural use.

BBNA: The whole water reuse concept seems to be slow to catch on. When they were talking about it in Los Angeles years ago, the Los Angeles Times came out with the headline “Toilet to Tap.”

Gleick: It's picking up speed. Orange County has done a very good job pioneering wastewater treatment and reuse. Every municipality is now thinking about wastewater treatment and reuse because the truth is there is no more unclaimed surface water or groundwater. We're tapped out. We've reached peak water in California.

BBNA: Is public opinion the only barrier?

Gleick: Public opinion is part of the barrier, but the truth is we don't have to use that stuff for potable uses. Potable uses are a small fraction of our total water use. We could use it for landscape irrigation or power plant cooling. Or ecosystem restoration or all sorts of the things. There's not much public opposition to those things.

There's some infrastructure problems. Often, the demand is not in the same place as the wastewater treatment plant. So you treat the water, and then you have to deliver the water again and that requires moving water around. We've got the pipes that go from where we're using it to the wastewater treatment plant. We don't really have the pipes that go from the wastewater treatment plant to users. So you have to build a separate set of infrastructure, and it gets expensive.

BBNA: Do you see an increased use in desalination?

Gleick: Desalination is an option. It's an incredibly expensive option even in places like California where other options are limited. [It's] far more expensive than wastewater treatment and reuse, far more expensive than improving conservation and efficiency, which has enormous potential. So I think in some places it makes more sense than others. The Poseidon plant in Carlsbad is under construction and should be done in a year or so. It's been very controversial and very expensive. It's going to be San Diego's most expensive source of water and 5 percent of its supply, but San Diego seems to be willing to pay for it. It's reliable, and it's drought proof. 

BBNA: What about hydropower? Are we going to be seeing more dam building in the West?

Gleick: No. we might build one or two more dams. We've built on all the good dam sites in the West and some not-so-good dam sites. We have a lot of hydro. It will continue to be an important part of our energy system, but there's not going to be much more. You might see more by upgrading generators and renovating old dams, putting in more efficient turbines. But I don't think you're going to see a big boost in capacity or generation.