Energy policy and water interconnected
By Tom Henry
Ohio Gov. John Kasich silenced many of his critics on July 15 when he vetoed legislation fellow Republican Party conservatives engineered that would have gutted the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, the historic agreement to manage water withdrawals on a regional level.
Kasich is now in position to preserve even more Great Lakes water.
All he has to do is use his considerable clout with conservatives to keep Ohio’s renewable energy portfolio standard intact. A foolhardy plan to repeal it, known as Senate Bill 221, has emerged in the Ohio General Assembly. If it passes, mandatory energy diversification in one of America’s most energy-intensive states will be killed after only two years, even though the law – which requires utilities to make a modest 12.5 percent investment in renewable energy by 2025 – was enacted in 2008 by a near-unananimous vote of the previous assembly.
Think about it. While people are caught up with mental images of giant, swooping wind turbines and flat, shiny solar panels, they often forget that failing to invest in renewables means greater water withdrawals. Other than agriculture, coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants are among the region’s greatest users of water.
That’s especially true of power plants with once-through cooling, i.e. those without cooling towers. Billions of gallons of fresh water are lost in them to evaporation. Billions of adult and juvenile fish, as well as their eggs and larvae, are destroyed, too, when they are caught up against intake screens or drawn through operating plants. Many of the plants operate at 500 degrees or hotter.
Also consider the highly controversial method of extracting oil and natural gas known as fracking when considering more traditional energy sources. Fracking requires billions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to be pumped underground at intense pressure to loosen fossil fuels trapped between flaky rocks. The technology has existed for years but has not been widely used because it is so energy-intensive and costly.
People may look at the Great Lakes and forget most of that water originated as groundwater. Portions of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania that are seen as future hotbeds for fracking could be drawing down the water table that helps replenish the lakes; Pennsylvania already is being impacted by brine pollution as a result of the fracking process. Brine is the liquid tainted with salt, hazardous metals and chemicals that was used to fracture shale. It rises to the surface with natural gas.
My point is this: People need to remember water and energy are interconnected. The energy choices you make and the amount of electricity you use will influence not only the quality of Great Lakes water for future generations but also the quantity of it.
Consistency needed for investment
Businesses need continuity in both policy and financial support, too, to take the plunge and invest in renewables. A report issued last month by Joe Perlaky, a University of Toledo program manager and renewable energy expert, concluded after studying businesses in the Toledo area’s 9th congressional district that renewable-energy manufacturers and owners of related businesses are frustrated over government grants tied to election cycles. Businesses said they would have an easier time hiring people if funding commitments were five to 10 years long, even if that meant fewer grant opportunities.
“The business community starts chasing its tail,” Perlaky, a Green Energy Ohio board member, said. “If renewable energy is important to us, we need to seed some of this activity [for] a longer period.”
Though it’s unlikely that renewables will put coal-fired or nuclear power out of business, the contributions from their offsets should be considered when the region is considering ways of collectively managing water withdrawals. Wind and solar power don’t need cooling water. With the Great Lakes holding 630 quadrillions gallons – enough to immerse the continental United States in five feet of water – even a 12.5 percent requirement can result in immense water savings. Ohio is the nation’s fourth largest user of electricity and nearly all of it now comes from coal and nuclear, with coal accounting for more than 80 percent.
Great Lakes Compact still debated
And while Great Lakes residents might take some comfort in knowing there’s a regional water compact in place to manage large-scale withdrawals from the lakes, the document – inspired by the Nova Group’s attempt to ship Lake Superior water to Asia in 1998 – still has not come close to being implemented by the Great Lakes states, even though more than 10 years have passed since Great Lakes governors agreed in Niagara Falls in June of 2001 that something had to be done and came together with the existing framework six years ago this December in Milwaukee.
Although the Great Lakes states completed the process of getting each of their legislative bodies on board with a 2008 agreement that upholds the basic concepts of what the governors wanted and got that agreement ratified by Congress that same year, the tedious nuts-and-bolts arguments over how the compact will be put into action by each state through implementing legislation is still being debated.
In theory, that should only be minor tweaking to account for the varied nuances between the states; remember, there is no regional body and one state cannot make another abide by its rules. Hence, the 11th hour attempt by Ohio conservatives to undo the process was significant. And nobody knows if it’s over. Conservatives appear to have the votes to override Kasich’s veto, although the hope is that they will not break rank from his leadership on this issue.
No wonder seasoned observers such as noted Great Lakes author-activist-adviser Dave Dempsey of Minnesota, who has opposed the compact because he believes it is too overly generous with exemptions for the bottled water industry and others, remains suspicious how much good it’ll do.
“Environmentalists hailed the passage of the compact, naively assuming the states would fully implement it,” Dempsey said. “Signing agreements generates positive public relations and implementing them offends key constituencies.”
Dempsey wonders who’s going to enforce the compact’s rules if it’s so hard getting the states to agree on them in the first place.
In other water news …
THE WAUKESHA WATCH IS ON: Many people who have followed the inner-workings of the compact know Waukesha, Wis., is likely to be its first test case. Waukesha is near Milwaukee, yet just outside the Great Lakes basin. It currently draws from deep aquifers. According to the Wisconsin DNR, water levels in those aquifers have dropped more than 500 feet and are continuing to decline up to nine feet every year. The aquifer also has high levels of cancer-causing radium. The city and some surrounding communities hope to eventually construct a $285 million or more system to get Lake Michigan water, citing compact exemptions that allow for such diversions in counties that that straddle the basin and have no other viable alternatives. The Wisconsin DNR stated in a June 29 letter that Waukesha’s application for a diversion is “sufficiently complete to allow us to begin a detailed review process,” which is expected to take months. Next up: A second round of public hearings, this time on the agency’s technical review and environmental impact statement. The Wisconsin DNR said on its Web site those documents should be ready by November, with hearings to follow.
WATER LAW LOVEFEST: Finally, a shameless plug for something that has become, for my money, one of the Great Lakes region’s better events for geeks like me who enjoy the wonkish world of water laws. The University of Toledo College of Law and its Legal Institute of the Great Lakes will have its annual one-day Great Lakes water-law conference Nov. 4 from 8 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. in the College of Law auditorium. The event began in the fall of 2001, the same year Great Lakes governors convened in Niagara Falls for their historic summit that laid the groundwork for today’s interstate compact to regulate water withdrawals. Highlighting this year’s conference is a keynote address on Asian carp from John Goss of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, and a panel about the compact that includes Ohio Sen. Tim Grendell, who led the property-rights campaign in 2008 that for months kept Ohio’s legislation in limbo. Other panels will examine the recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling on beach access and how fracking can impact water resources.