Thursday, September 06, 2012

Food versus Energy (Part II): The view from Colorado

Gunnison River, where water is diverted via tunnel to
irrigate the Uncompahgre Valley, Colorado
I wrote this post a few weeks ago about the conflicts between ag interests and natural gas extraction in Australia.  The New York Times reports today on similar conflicts in the United States.  Kirk Johnson's story focuses on the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and oil and gas interests on the other.  His dateline is Greeley, Colorado, and the headline is "For Farms in the West, Oil Wells are Thirsty Rivals."

Johnson reports that oil and gas interests in Colorado are paying record high prices for excess water that they buy or lease from cities.  While farmers have tended to pay between $30 and $100 for an acre foot of water (about 326,000 gallons), depending on scarcity, oil and gas companies are now paying as much as $1K to $2K for that amount of treated water purchased from cities.  Farmers say they can't match those bids.  Peter Anderson, a corn and alfalfa farmer in eastern Colorado, casts farmers as the underdogs based on the value of the commodity delivered:
Water from the Gunnison River
irrigating a farm near Montrose, Colorado

It's not a level playing field.  ... I don't think in reality that the farmer can compete with the oil and gas companies for that water.  Their return is a hell of a lot better than ours.  
But as water-intensive as fracking is, the controversial process is consuming far less water than farmers are right now in Colorado.  Oil and gas companies estimate their 2012 water use at 6.5 billion gallons--or about a tenth of one percent of the state's total water use.  That figure is disputed by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group that puts the figure at perhaps twice that much.  But even 13 million gallons is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the whopping 85.5% of Colorado's water use that goes for irrigation and agriculture.

Oil and gas may be David to ag's Goliath when it comes to water use, but tension between these sectors is likely to increase, particularly during times of drought and as the gas industry's needs grow--growth projected to be 16% over the next three years.

A spokesperson for agricultural interests articulated the conflict as one between food and energy.  For example, Johnson quotes Ben Rainbolt, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union:
We're not going to be able to raise the food we need.  How are we going to produce this with less?
A spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association puts a different spin on it, calling energy the "foundation of all we do," including agriculture.

But isn't this really a "chicken and egg" situation?  That is, food is energy--the first form of energy--and without it, people can't engage in energy production or energy consumption for other purposes.  

I note that Colorado law requires court approval of these bulk water purchases, so it will be interesting to see if and how legal norms around such approval evolve as oil and gas industry demands for water grow.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

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