Oil Demand In The U.S. Can Stress Water Supplies In Countries Thousands Of Miles Away

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The world’s demand for fossil fuel resources is straining its supply of another, more precious resource — water.

That’s according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at how demand for oil, natural gas, and electricity affected water supplies around the world. It found that a country’s demand for natural gas and electricity tends to result in water resources being taken from the country itself — so, for instance, the water needed to frack a gas well in North Dakota is likely to come from the United States. But oil is different, the study found, because it’s much more likely to have an international water footprint. So when a country like the U.S. imports water from countries like Saudi Arabia, that demand can put a strain on that country’s — and, in some cases, surrounding countries’ — water supplies.

“Our analyses demonstrate that the US petroleum sector is reliant on economic activity in countries/regions of the world that are exposed to significant pressures on renewable freshwater resources (e.g., India, Pakistan) and where it may be difficult to implement the necessary market reforms to safeguard freshwater resources,” the authors write in the study.

Worldwide, about 56 percent of the oil sector’s water needs come from countries outside of where demand for that oil originates. In the U.S., about 73 percent of all the water associated with the country’s oil demand comes from international sources. That’s a significant percentage, especially compared to China, where 22 percent of the oil sector’s water needs come from international sources. Most of the water associated with U.S. demand comes from western, southern, and eastern Asia, along with northern Africa — which makes sense, as Climate Central points out, since those regions are the source of much of the country’s oil imports.

This connection between oil demand in one country and strained water resources in another needs to be considered in broader energy policy discussions, said Felix Eigenbrod, lead author of the study and associate professor at the University of Southampton in England.

“While much of the debate around energy is focussed on greenhouse gas emissions, our findings highlight the need to consider the full range of consequences of the world’s demand for energy when designing energy and environmental policies,” he said in a statement.

Drilling for oil and gas is highly water-intensive. Even in the U.S., fossil fuel production has come under fire for the amount of water it uses — California used 70 million gallons of water for fracking last year, a figure that, though small compared to other sectors in the state, angered environmentalists who were concerned about the state’s ongoing drought. And an analysis last year found that fracking operations are stressing water supplies in areas of the U.S. that are already experiencing drought.

And climate change — something that’s being caused in part by the oil that’s using up international water supplies — is also expected to put a strain on water supplies. A recent study found that declining snowpack could lead to water shortages in a range of regions around the world by 2060.