October 6, 2008

Water to Fuel Energy Boom in West Virginia

By Williams, Walt

BRIDGEPORT - Coal and natural gas may be fueling the cars of the future, but fueling the industries that supply those natural resources will be water.

In some cases it will be a lot of water. One relatively new technique used to get natural gas out of the ground may use as much as 50 or more times the amount of water as traditional drilling. Also, a much-hyped process used to convert coal into liquid fuel has the potential to eat up thousands of gallons of water every minute.

Water is a resource that West Virginia has in abundance, at least compared to Western coal-producing states, where water is so scarce that legal battles over its ownership are commonplace. But even in West Virginia water is a resource that is finite, and some state lawmakers believe that action may need to be taken now to ensure that it isn't horded by corporations or by the state's neighbors during the next energy boom.

"We've been blessed with a resource that is just as valuable - some people would say more valuable - than coal," said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

The legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources hosted two meetings over two days to discuss the ramifications of new energy development on water supplies. The state Legislature had its monthly interim session in Bridgeport this month as part of its annual retreat from Charleston.

One technology on the horizon is coal-to-liquid fuels. It is a process in which coal is converted into diesel or gasoline. Advocates say it will help free the United States from its dependence on foreign oil, and recently two companies announced plans to build a coal-to-liquid plant in Marshall County

The technology also uses water to make the fuel. Any plant using eastern coal would need about 7.3 gallons of water to produce one gallon of fuel, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia University Water Research Institute. Western coal has a higher water content so it only needs about five gallons of water for every one gallon of product.

"Of course, there is no water out west, so it doesn't matter," he said.

Ziemkiewicz ran a thought experiment to help show how much water the industry could end up using. He imagined that West Virginia had become completely self-sufficient in producing its own fuel using coal-to-liquid technology. Every car and truck in the state would run on fuel coming from the coal in the ground.

Under that scenario, coal-to-liquid plants in would consume nearly 119,000 gallons of water every minute, according to his calculations. That may sound like a lot, but more than 33 million gallons of water flows past Point Pleasant every minute in the Ohio River alone.

The challenge in the future likely won't be whether West Virginia has enough water for coal-to-liquid fuels, but the ownership of that water. For example, West Virginia pretty much owns the Ohio River to the Ohio shoreline, but developers are going to need to be assured that resource will be available.

"If we can't guarantee a develop a reliable source of water, and that is subject to adjudication at some point, that is a disincentive to move here," Ziemkiewicz said.

However, coal-to-liquid technology may end up using more water than what it appears it would at first glance, said Jim Kocton, president of the West Virginia Environmental Council. First there is the water that will be used in mining to get the water out of the ground. And the developers of coal-to-liquid plants have promised to bury the carbon dioxide they produce in the ground, and that will use water.

"The water needed just for the plant itself is just a small portion of the water needed for turning coals into liquid fuels," he said.

Kocton also noted that much of what we know about water use for coal-to-liquid technology is theoretical rather than practical. Only South Africa has developed the technology since War World II, although China is about to open its own plant.

And the process will need clean water so it doesn't gunk up the machinery, he explained. Any wastewater also will need to be properly disposed.

A regulatory framework outlining those procedures needs to be in place before the industry moves in, he said.

One technology that already is being used is "hydrofracking," which is a drilling technique where water is injected into shale at high velocity to extract natural gas out of the ground.

As the name implies, the process uses a lot of water: Tens of thousands of barrels of water in some cases compared to just a couple hundred barrels for a normal well, according James Martin, chief of the Office of Oil and Gas at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

That worries environmentalists such as Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Environmental Council, who said some smaller streams in the state already run low during certain times of the year.

"In my area, there is not going to be that much in a stream," she said.

Instead the water will come from two or three streams, she added. Rank was also worried about what happened after the gas was extracted, since hydrofracking creates a lot of wastewater and chemicals are added to the water to aid in the process.

Industry representatives have pointed out that they already are regulated and the wastewater is treatable.

Much of the drilling efforts are focused on the Marcellus Shale, a natural gas producing formation lying under Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Joe Pettey, owner president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia and owner of Pettey Oil Field Services, called the Marcellus a "new horizon" for gas drilling. The industry is booming at the moment thanks to the high price of natural gas.

"The issue about water is you have to have water in the drilling process," he said. "Economics drives how much water you are going to use."

Copyright State Journal Corporation Sep 12, 2008

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