Interdependencies of Energy Infrastructure, Water, and Climate Change GAO 2014

[ This report shows the interdependencies of Climate Change and the nation’s energy infrastructure, which is especially vulnerable because it’s so old and falling apart already. Another GAO report discusses the energy-water nexus.  Interdependent systems are more vulnerable – climate change, water, or energy resource issues can affect other systems and damage them as well. While cheap and plentiful oil remains, these problems are fixed, temporarily hiding the true depth of decay our systems are I, with climate change increasing the speed and magnitude of failing infrastructure further.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

USGAO. January 2014. CLIMATE CHANGE Energy Infrastructure Risks and Adaptation Efforts GAO-14-74. United States Government Accountability Office.

Excerpts from this 74 page document follow:

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about 50% of carbon dioxide emitted by human activity will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years. USGCRP estimates that another 0.5 degree Fahrenheit increase would occur even if all emissions from human activities were suddenly stopped.

According to assessments by the National Research Council (NRC) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), U.S. energy infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts—particularly infrastructure in areas prone to severe weather and water shortages. Climate changes are projected to affect infrastructure throughout all major stages of the energy supply chain, thereby increasing the risk of disruptions. For example:

  • Resource extraction and processing infrastructure, including oil and natural gas platforms, refineries, and processing plants, is often located near the coast, making it vulnerable to severe weather and sea level rise.
  • Fuel transportation and storage infrastructure, including pipelines, barges, railways and storage tanks, is susceptible to damage from severe weather, melting permafrost, and increased precipitation.
  • Electricity generation infrastructure, such as power plants, is vulnerable to severe weather or water shortages, which can interrupt operations.
  • Electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure, including power lines and substations, is susceptible to severe weather and may be stressed by rising demand for electricity as temperatures rise.

According to DOE, the energy supply chain has grown increasingly complex and interdependent. In total, the U.S. energy supply chain includes approximately 2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, 6,600 operational power plants, about 144 operable refineries, and about 160,000 miles of transmission lines. Collectively, this infrastructure enables the United States to meet industrial, commercial, and residential demands, as well as to support transportation and communication networks.

Most energy infrastructure was engineered and built for our past or current climate and may not be resilient to continued and expected increases in the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events and overall continued weather and climate change in the long-term. Further, this infrastructure is aging, according to DOE. For example, most of the U.S. electricity transmission system was designed to last 40 to 50 years; yet, in some parts of the country, it is now 100 years old.

The nation’s oil and gas infrastructure is also aging and about half of the nation’s oil and gas pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Changes in climate have the potential to further strain these already aging components by forcing them to operate outside of the ranges for which they were designed. DOE reported that aging infrastructure is more susceptible than newer assets to the hurricane-related hazards of storm surge, flooding, and extreme winds, and retrofitting this existing infrastructure with more climate-resilient technologies remains a challenge.

Climate change is a complex, crosscutting issue that could pose significant risks to the nation’s energy infrastructure. According to assessments by the National Research Council (NRC) and the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the effects of climate change are already under way and are projected to continue. Global atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases have increased markedly over the last 200 years which has contributed to a warming of the earth’s climate as well as increasing the acidity of oceans. Changes observed in the United States include more intense weather and storm events, heat waves, floods, and droughts; rising sea levels; and changing patterns of rainfall. These trends, which are expected to continue, can adversely affect energy infrastructure such as natural gas and oil production platforms, pipelines, power plants, and electricity distribution lines, according to NRC and USGCRP, thus making it more difficult to ensure a reliable energy supply to the nation’s homes and businesses.

Energy infrastructure can be affected by both acute weather events and long-term changes in the climate, according to NRC and the Department of Energy (DOE). In particular, energy infrastructure located along the coast is at risk from increasingly intense storms, which can substantially disrupt oil and gas production and cause temporary fuel or electricity shortages. In 2012, for example, storm surge and high winds from Hurricane Sandy—an acute weather event-–downed power lines, flooded electrical substations, and damaged or temporarily shut down several power plants and ports, according to DOE, leaving over 8 million customers without power.

Long-term changes in the climate could also impact energy infrastructure, according to USGCRP and DOE. For example, warming air temperatures may reduce the efficiency of power plants while increasing the overall demand for electricity, potentially creating supply challenges. In addition, while many climate change impacts are projected to be regional in nature, the interconnectedness of the nation’s energy system means that regional vulnerabilities may have wide-ranging implications for energy production and use, ultimately affecting transportation, industrial, agricultural, and other critical sectors of the economy that require reliable energy.

As observed by USGCRP, the impacts and financial costs of weather disasters—resulting from floods, drought, and other weather events—are expected to increase in significance as what are historically considered to be “rare” events become more common and intense due to climate change (Karl 2009). According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climate Data Center (NCDC), the United States experienced 11 extreme weather and climate events in 2012, each causing more than $1 billion in losses. Two of the most significant weather events during 2012 were Hurricane Sandy, estimated at $65 billion, and an extended drought that covered over half of the contiguous United States estimated at $30 billion. While it is difficult to attribute any individual weather event to climate change, these events provide insight into the potential climate-related vulnerabilities the United States faces. In this regard, both private sector firms and federal agencies have documented an increase in weather-related losses. A 2013 study by the reinsurance provider Munich Re, for example, indicated that, in 2012, insured losses in the United States totaled $58 billion—far above the 2000 to 2011 average loss of $27 billion. The energy sector often bears a significant portion of these costs, according to USGCRP; for example, direct costs to the energy industry following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 were estimated at around $15 billion.

Because emitted greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for extended periods of time, some changes to the climate are expected to occur as a result of emissions to date, regardless of future efforts to control emissions. When identifying agencies with key responsibilities related to energy infrastructure we focused on agencies with a direct role in overseeing and developing activities within the energy sector.

Climate Change Can Impact Resource Extraction and Processing Infrastructure

According to USGCRP, NRC, and others, climate change poses risks to energy infrastructure at all four key stages in the supply chain. In addition, broad, systemic factors such as water scarcity and energy system interdependencies could amplify these impacts.

Impacts from climate change can affect infrastructure throughout the four major stages of the energy supply chain: (1) resource extraction and processing infrastructure, (2) fuel transportation and storage infrastructure, (3) electricity generation infrastructure, and (4) electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Much of the infrastructure used to extract, refine, and process, and prospect for fuels —including natural gas and oil platforms, oil refineries, and natural gas processing plants—is located offshore or near the coast, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme weather, and other impacts, according to USGCRP and DOE assessments.

The Gulf Coast, for example, is home to nearly 4,000 oil and gas platforms, many of which are at risk of damage or disruption due to high winds and storm surges at increasingly high sea levels. Low-lying coastal areas are also home to many oil refineries, coal import/export facilities, and natural gas processing facilities that are similarly vulnerable to inundation, shoreline erosion, and storm surges. Given that the Gulf Coast is home to approximately half of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas production—as well as nearly half of its refining capacity—regional severe weather events can have significant implications for energy supplies nationwide.

In 2005 high winds and flooding from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused extensive damage to the region’s natural gas and oil infrastructure, destroying more than 100 platforms, damaging 558 pipelines, and shutting down numerous refineries, effectively halting nearly all oil and gas production for several weeks.

Figure 2: Active Oil and Gas Platforms in the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 4,000 active oil and gas platforms are located in the central and western Gulf of Mexico. Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Comparing the Impacts of Northeast Hurricanes on Energy Infrastructure (April 2013).

Figure 2: Active Oil and Gas Platforms in the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 4,000 active oil and gas platforms are located in the central and western Gulf of Mexico. Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Comparing the Impacts of Northeast Hurricanes on Energy Infrastructure (April 2013).


Storm-related impacts on natural gas and oil production infrastructure can also have significant economic implications. Losses related to infrastructure damage can be extensive, particularly given the high value and long life span of natural gas and oil platforms, refineries, and processing plants. For example, a report by Entergy Corporation, an integrated energy company serving a number of southern states, estimated its infrastructure restoration costs at around $1.5 billion following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A 2009 DOE assessment reported that some damages resulting from the 2005 hurricanes were too costly to repair; as a result, a number of platforms were sunk, and significant crude oil production capacity was lost. In addition to causing physical damage, increasingly intense severe weather events can disrupt operations and decrease fuel supplies, resulting in broader economic losses for businesses and industries that depend on these resources. According to USGCRP assessments, damage to key infrastructure—especially to refineries, natural gas processing plants, and petroleum terminals—can cause fuel prices to spike across the country, as evidenced by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Flood damage is the most common and costliest type of storm damage to oil production infrastructure, resulting in the longest disruptions, according to DOE’s 2010 report.

Warming temperatures and water availability may also present challenges for the nation’s extraction and processing infrastructure. For example, according to USGCRP, climate change impacts have already been observed in Alaska, where thawing permafrost has substantially shortened the season during which oil and gas exploration and extraction equipment can be operated on the tundra.

Oil refineries around the nation are also potentially at risk, according to USGCRP; they require both significant quantities of water and access to electricity, making them vulnerable to drought and power outages.

Climate Change Can Impact Fuel Transportation and Storage Infrastructure

USGCRP assessments identified several ways in which climate change can affect fuel transportation infrastructure, including pipeline systems that carry natural gas and oil; trucks, railways, and barges that transport coal, oil and petroleum products; as well as storage facilities, such as aboveground tanks, underground salt caverns, and aquifers.

Natural gas and oil pipelines, which generally require electricity to operate, are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, according to DOE. The U.S. pipeline system is a complex network comprising over 2.6 million miles of natural gas and oil pipelines, some of which have already been affected by past weather events. For example, electric power outages from Hurricane Katrina caused three critical pipelines— which cumulatively transport 125 million gallons of fuel each day—to shut down for two full days and operate at reduced power for about two weeks, leading to fuel shortages and temporary price spikes. In addition to the power outage, the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service reported that approximately 457 pipelines were damaged during the hurricanes, interrupting production for months. More recently, in July 2011, ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline in Montana, buried beneath the Yellowstone riverbed, was torn apart by flood-caused debris, spilling oil into the river and disrupting crude oil transport in the region, with damages estimated at $135 million, according to the Department of Transportation. Storm surge flooding can also affect above ground fuel storage tanks, according to DOE; for example, tanks not fully filled can drift off of their platforms or become corroded by trapped salt water.

By way of protection, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources limits the amount of travel on the tundra. Over the past 30 years, the number of days where travel is permitted has dropped from more than 200 to 100, thereby reducing by at least half the number of days that natural gas and oil exploration and extraction equipment can be used.

Crude oil and petroleum products are transported by rail, barge systems, pipelines, and tanker trucks. Coal is transported by rail, barge, truck, and pipeline. Corn-based ethanol, blended with gasoline, is largely shipped by rail, while bioenergy feedstock transport relies on barge, rail, and truck freight.

In addition to pipelines, rail, barge, and tanker trucks also play critical roles in transporting fuel across the country. According to USGCRP and DOE assessments, fuel transport by rail and barge can be affected when water levels in rivers and ports drop too low, such as during a drought, or too high, such as during a storm surge. During the 2012 drought, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported groundings of traffic along the Mississippi River due to low water depths, preventing barge shipments of coal and petroleum products. Lower water levels can also affect the amount of fuel the barges are capable of hauling; according to DOE’s 2013 assessment, a one-inch drop in river level can reduce a barge’s towing capacity by 255 tons.

Disruptions in barge transportation due to extreme weather can also present challenges for areas such as Florida, which are nearly entirely dependent on barges for fuel delivery.

Intense storms and flooding can also wash out rail lines—which in many regions follow riverbeds—and impede the delivery of coal to power plants. According to DOE, flooding of rail lines has already been a problem both in the Appalachian region and along the Mississippi River. The rerouting that occurs as a result of such flooding can cost millions of dollars and can delay coal deliveries.

Colder climates present a different set of risks for fuel transportation infrastructure, according to DOE and USGCRP assessments. For example, in Alaska—where average temperatures have risen about twice as much as the rest of the nation—thawing permafrost is already causing pipeline, rail, and pavement displacements, requiring reconstruction of key facilities and raising maintenance costs.31 Melting sea ice caused by warmer temperatures can result in more icebergs and ice movement, which in turn can damage barges transporting natural gas and oil.

Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants . According to USGCRP, climate change is expected to have potentially significant consequences for fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Fossil fuel plants—which burn coal, natural gas, or oil—are susceptible to much of the same impacts as nuclear power plants, according to USGCRP and DOE, including diminishing water supplies, warming temperatures, and severe weather, among others.

As permafrost thaws, the tundra loses its weight-bearing capabilities, according to DOE. Risks to onshore fossil fuel development could include the loss of access roads built on permafrost, loss of opportunities to establish new roads, problems with pipelines buried in permafrost, and reduced load-bearing capacity of buildings and structures.

According to USGCRP, episodic and long-lasting water shortages and elevated water temperatures may constrain electricity generation in many regions of the United States. As currently designed, most fossil fuel and nuclear plants require significant amounts of water to generate, cool, and condense steam. Energy production, together with thermoelectric power, accounted for approximately 11% of U.S. water consumption in 2005, according to one study33, second only to irrigation. Issues related to water already pose a range of challenges for existing power plants, as illustrated by the following examples cited by DOE:

  • Insufficient amounts of water. In 2007, a drought affecting the southeastern United States caused water levels in some rivers, lakes and reservoirs to drop below the level of intake valves that supply cooling water to power plants, causing some plants to stop or reduce power production.
  • Outgoing water too warm. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to reduce power output from its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama because the temperature of the river was too high to receive discharge water without raising ecological risks; the cost of replacing lost power was estimated at $50 million.
  • Incoming water too warm. In August 2012, Dominion Resources’ Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut shut down one reactor because the intake cooling water, withdrawn from the Long Island Sound, exceeded temperature specifications. The resulting loss of power production was estimated at several million dollars.

Water use by thermoelectric power plants can be generally characterized as consumption, withdrawal, and discharge. Water consumption refers to the portion of the water withdrawn that is no longer available to be returned to a water source, such as when it has evaporated. Water withdrawals refer to water removed from the ground or diverted from a surface water source—for example, an ocean, river, or lake—for use by the plant. For many thermoelectric power plants, much of the water they withdraw is later discharged, although often at higher temperatures. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in terms of water withdrawal, thermoelectric power was the largest source of water withdrawals (49 percent) in 2005, followed by irrigation at 31%. The amount of water discharged from a thermoelectric power plant depends on a number of factors, including the type of cooling technology used, plant economics, and environmental regulations. Some “once-through” systems can harm aquatic life—such as fish, crustaceans, and marine mammals—by pulling them into cooling systems or trapping them against water intake screens. The habitats of aquatic life can also be adversely affected by warm water discharges.

USGCRP and NRC assessments project that water issues will continue to constrain electricity production at existing facilities as temperatures increase and precipitation patterns change. Many of these risks are regional in nature; research by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), for example, indicates that approximately 25 percent of existing electric generation in the United States is located in counties projected to be at high or moderate water supply sustainability risk in 2030.

Water availability concerns are already affecting the development of new power plants, according to USGCRP’s 2009 assessment, as plans to develop new plants are delayed or halted at increasing rates. Moreover, as demands for energy and water increase, competition between the energy, industrial, and agricultural sectors, among others, sectors could place additional strain on the nation’s power plants, potentially affecting the reliability of future electric power generation.

USGCRP and DOE assessments also indicate that higher air and water temperatures may diminish the efficiency by which power plants convert fuel to electricity. A power plant’s operating efficiency is affected by the performance of the cooling system, among other things. According to USGCRP, warming temperatures may decrease the efficiency of power plant cooling technologies, thereby reducing overall electricity generation.

Even small changes in efficiency could have significant implications for electricity supply at a national scale. For example, an average reduction of 1 percent in electricity generated by fossil fuel plants nationwide would mean a loss of 25 billion kilowatt-hours per year, about the amount of electricity consumed by approximately 2 to 3 million Americans.

When projected increases in air and water temperatures associated with climate change are combined with changes to water availability, generation capacity during the summer months may be significantly reduced, according to DOE. Warmer water discharged from power plants into lakes or rivers can also harm fish and plants.

To prevent hot water from doing harm to fish and other wildlife, power plants typically are not allowed to discharge cooling water above a certain temperature. When power plants reach those limits, they can be forced to reduce power production or shut down.

In addition to the effects of rising temperatures and reduced water availability, power plant operations are also susceptible to extreme weather, increased precipitation, and sea level rise, according to assessments by USGCRP and DOE. To a large extent, this vulnerability stems from their location—thermoelectric power plants are frequently located along the U.S. coastline, and many inland plants sit upon low-lying areas or flood plains. For coastal plants, more intense hurricane-force winds can produce damaging storm surges and flooding—an impact illustrated by Hurricane Sandy, which shut down several power plants. Some power plants near the coast could also be affected by sea level rise, according to DOE, because they are located on land that is relatively flat and, in some places, subsiding. Increasing intensity and frequency of flooding also poses a risk to inland power plants, according to DOE. The structures that draw cooling water from rivers are vulnerable to flooding and, in some cases, storm surge. This risk was illustrated when Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant was initially shut down for a scheduled refueling outage in April 2011. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, the outage was subsequently extended due to flooding from the Missouri River and a need to address long-standing technical issues that continued to impair plant operations. According to USGCRP, seasonal flooding could result in increased costs to manage on-site drainage and runoff.

Hydropower—a major source of electricity in some regions of the United States, particularly the Northwest—is highly sensitive to a number of climactic changes. According to USGCRP and DOE, rising temperatures can reduce the amount of water available for hydropower—due to increased evaporation—and degrade habitats for fish and other wildlife. Hydropower production is also highly sensitive to changes in precipitation and river discharge, according to USGCRP and DOE assessments. According to USGCRP’s 2009 assessment, for example, studies suggest that every 1 percent decrease in precipitation results in a 2 to 3 percent drop in streamflow; in the Colorado Basin, such a drop decreases hydropower generation by 3 percent. Climate variability has already had a significant influence on the operation of hydropower systems, according to USGCRP, with significant changes detected in the timing and amount of stream flows in many western rivers.

Biofuels. According to USGCRP assessments, biofuels made from grains, sugar and oil crops, starch, grasses, trees, and biological waste are meeting an increasing portion of U.S. energy demand. Currently, however, most U.S. biofuels are produced from corn grown on rain-fed land, making biofuel susceptible to drought and reduced precipitation, as well as competing demands for water. These issues were highlighted when droughts in 2012 produced a poor corn harvest, raising concerns about the allocation of corn for food versus ethanol. Production of biofuel crops may also be inhibited by heavy rainfall and flooding, according to DOE. Climate change could also present some benefits; for example, warmer temperatures could extend the period of the growing season (although DOE also notes that extreme heat could damage crops).

Solar. The effects of climate change on solar energy—which generated about 0.05 percent of U.S. electricity in 2010—depend on the type of solar technology in use, according to DOE and USGCRP. Some studies suggest that photovoltaic energy production could be affected by changes in haze, humidity, and dust. Higher temperatures can also reduce the effectiveness of photovoltaic electricity generation. On the other hand, concentrating solar power (CSP) systems— unlike photovoltaic cells—require extensive amounts of water for cooling purposes, making them susceptible to water shortages.

Wind. Wind energy accounted for about 13 percent of U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2011. Unlike thermoelectric generation, wind energy does not use or consume water to generate electricity, making it a potentially attractive option in light of water scarcity concerns. On the other hand, wind energy cannot be naturally stored, and the natural variability of wind speeds can have a significant positive or negative impact on the amount of energy produced. Wind turbines are also subject to extreme weather, according to USGCRP.

Geothermal power plants extract geothermal fluids—hot water, brines, and steam—from the earth by drilling wells to depths of up to 10,000 feet. According to EIA, geothermal energy represented approximately 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2011, with most geothermal reservoirs located in western states, Alaska, and Hawaii. As with fossil fuel power plants and concentrating solar power, increases in air and water temperatures can reduce the efficiency with which geothermal facilities generate electricity, according to DOE’s 2013 assessment. Geothermal power plants can also withdraw and consume significant quantities of water, according to DOE, making them susceptible to water shortages caused by changes in precipitation or warming temperatures.

According to DOE, CSP power plants using recirculating cooling water typically consume more water than a fossil fuel or nuclear power plants.

Climate Change Can Impact Electricity Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure

Transmission and distribution infrastructure can extend for thousands of miles, making it vulnerable to a variety of climate change impacts. According to assessments by USGCRP and others, transmission and distribution lines and substations are susceptible to damage from extreme winds, ice, lightning strikes, wildfires, landslides, and flooding. High winds, especially when combined with precipitation from tropical storms and hurricanes, can be particularly damaging, potentially interrupting service in broad geographic areas over long periods of time.  [My comment: 12 to 31 days of electricity outage could allow nuclear stored fuel pools to catch on fire and release enough radioactive material that up to 18 million people would need to evacuate (Stone 2016) ]

In the winter months, heavy snowfall and excessive icing on overhead lines can cause outages and require costly repairs, according to a review of literature published in the journal Energy. According to USGCRP, increasing temperatures and drought may increase the risk of wildfires, which in turn may cause physical damage to electricity transmission infrastructure and decrease available transmission capacity. Apart from transmission and distribution lines, severe weather can also present risks for substations, according to DOE, which modify voltage for residential and commercial use, as well as for operation centers that are critical components of any electricity supply system.

Apart from risks related to extreme weather events, increasing temperatures may decrease transmission system efficiency and could reduce available transmission capacity, according to DOE. Approximately 7 percent of generated power is lost in transmission and distribution, according to information publicly available on the EIA’s website. As temperatures rise, the capacity of power lines to carry current decreases, according to DOE, as does the overall efficiency of the grid. Higher temperatures may also cause overhead lines to sag, posing fire and safety hazards. All of these factors can contribute to power outages at times of peak demand, according to USGCRP. In 2006, for example, electric power transformers failed in Missouri and New York, causing interruptions of the electric power supply in the midst of a widespread heat wave.

Broad, Systemic Factors Could Amplify Climate Change Impacts on Energy Infrastructure

Based on our previous work, as well as reports from USGCRP, NRC, and others, we identified several broad, systemic factors that could amplify the effects of climate change on energy infrastructure. These factors—which include changes in water availability, system interdependencies, increases in energy demand, and the compounding effects of multiple climate impacts—could have implications that extend throughout the energy sector and beyond.

Changes in Water Availability May Significantly Impact Energy Supply

As our series of reports on the energy-water nexus has shown, water and energy are inextricably linked and mutually dependent, with each affecting the other’s availability. Many aspects of energy production require the use of water to operate (see fig. 7). As discussed earlier in this review, fossil fuel and nuclear power plants—which accounted for about 90 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2011—rely heavily on water for cooling purposes. As we reported in 2012, recently developed hydraulic fracturing methods also require significant amounts of water—3 to 5.6 million gallons of freshwater per well, according to our previous work on shale resources and development. Increased evaporation rates or changes in snowpack may affect the volume and timing of water available for hydropower. Water is also required to mine and transport coal and uranium; to extract, produce, and refine oil and gas; and to support crops used in biofuel production, among other uses. According to the Congressional Research Service, the energy sector is the fastest growing water consumer in the United States and is projected to account for 85 percent of the growth in domestic water consumption between 2005 and 2030. This increase in water use associated with energy development is being driven, in part, by rising energy demand, increased development of domestic energy, and shifts to more water- intense energy sources and technologies.

Since 2009, GAO has issued six reports on the interdependencies that exist between energy and water:

  1. GAO, Energy-Water Nexus: Improvements to Federal Water Use Data Would Increase Understanding of Trends in Power Plant Water Use, GAO-10-23 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 16, 2009)
  2. GAO, Energy-Water Nexus: Many Uncertainties Remain about National and Regional Effects of Increased Biofuel Production on Water Resources, GAO-10-116 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 30, 2009)
  3. GAO, Energy-Water Nexus: Amount of Energy Needed to Supply, Use, and Treat Water Is Location-Specific and Can Be Reduced by Certain Technologies and Approaches, GAO-11-225 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 23, 2011)
  4. GAO, Energy- Water Nexus: A Better and Coordinated Understanding of Water Resources Could Help Mitigate the Impacts of Potential Oil Shale Development, GAO-11-35 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 29, 2010)
  5. GAO, Energy-Water Nexus: Information on the Quantity, Quality, and Management of Water Produced during Oil and Gas Production, GAO-12-156 (Washington, D.C.: Jan. 9, 2012)
  6. GAO, Oil and Gas: Information on Shale Resources, Development, and Environmental and Public Health Risks, GAO-12-732 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 5, 2012)

Water used in shale oil and gas development is largely considered to be consumptive and can be permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle, according to EPA and Interior officials. However, it is difficult to determine the long- term effect on water resources because the scale and location of future operations remains largely uncertain. Similarly, the total volume that operators will withdraw from surface water and aquifers for drilling and hydraulic fracturing is not known until operators submit applications to the appropriate regulatory agency. As a result, the cumulative amount of water consumed over the lifetime of the activity remains largely unknown.

Water consumption is the portion of the water withdrawn that is no longer available to be returned to a water source, such as when it has evaporated. Energy production (which includes biofuel production), together with thermoelectric power, is the second largest consumer of water in the United States, accounting for approximately 11 percent of water consumption in 2005. Irrigation was the largest consumer, at approximately 74 percent. (Elcock, D., “Future U.S. Water Consumption: The Role of Energy Production, Journal of the American Water Resources Association vol. 46, no. 3 (2010): 447-460.). However, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, in terms of water withdrawal, thermoelectric power was the largest source of water withdrawals (49 percent) in 2005, followed by irrigation at 31 percent. Water withdrawal refers to water removed from the ground or diverted from a surface water source, such as an ocean, river, or lake.

According to USGCRP and NOAA, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are causing regional and seasonal changes to the water cycle—trends that present significant risks for the U.S. energy sector. More frequent and intense droughts, reduced summertime precipitation, and decreased streamflows are likely to adversely affect available water supply in some regions, particularly during the summer months.51Given the energy sector’s dependence on water, these changes are likely to have wide-ranging impacts on the costs and methods for extracting, producing, and delivering fuels; the costs and methods used to produce electricity; the location of future infrastructure; and the types of technologies used. In recent years, a number of weather and climate events have served to illustrate some of the risks associated with water scarcity, as reported by DOE:

  • In 2010, below-normal precipitation and streamflows in the Columbia River basin resulted in insufficient hydropower generation to fulfill load obligations for the Bonneville Power Administration, resulting in reported losses of approximately $233 million or 10 percent from the prior year; In 2007, a severe southeast drought reduced river flow in the Chattahoochee River by nearly 80 percent; reducing hydroelectric power in the Southeast by 45 percent; In 2012, drought and low river levels disrupted barge transportation of petroleum and coal along the Mississippi River.

USGCRP and DOE assessments further note that the energy sector’s demand for water will increasingly compete with rising demand from the agricultural, industrial, and other sectors.

The energy sector comprises a complex system of interdependent facilities and components, and damage to one part of the system can adversely affect infrastructure in other phases of the supply chain, according to DOE and USGCRP. Many different types of energy infrastructure—from pipelines to refineries—depend on electricity to function; as such, they may be unable to operate in a power outage, even if otherwise undamaged. Recent events associated with Hurricane Sandy illustrate these interdependencies—over 7,000 transformers and 15,200 poles were damaged, according to DOE, causing widespread power outages across 21 states. These outages affected a range of infrastructure dependent on electricity to function—for example, two New Jersey refineries were shut down, and a number of petroleum terminals and gas station fuel pumps were rendered inoperable. Because many components of the U.S. energy system-–like coal, oil, and electricity-– move from one area to another, extreme weather events affecting energy infrastructure in one region can lead to significant supply consequences elsewhere, according to USGCRP.

According to EPA, water from snowpack declined for most of the western states from 1950 to 2000, with losses at some sites exceeding 75 percent. Annual streamflows are expected to decrease in the summer for most regions, according to USGCRP, and drought conditions—which have become more common and widespread over the past 40 years in the Southwest, southern Great Plains, and Southeast, according to USGCRP— are expected to become more frequent and intense. Groundwater resources are already being depleted in multiple regions, according to USGS, and these impacts are expected to continue. See EPA, Climate Change Indicators in the United States, EPA 430-R-10-007 (Washington, D.C.: 2010) and United States Geological Survey, Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008), Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5079 (Reston, VA: May 2013).

Interdependencies also link the energy sector to other sectors, such as transportation, agriculture, and communications. The energy sector requires railways, roads, and ports to transport resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, for example; conversely, many modes of transportation rely on oil, gasoline, or electricity. Given these interdependencies, disruptions of services in one sector can lead to cascading disruptions in other sectors.

Higher Temperatures Are Expected To Increase Energy Demand

Increases in temperature are expected to affect the cost, type, and amount of energy consumed in the United States, according to NRC and USGCRP assessments. Over the past four decades, the demand for cooling has risen and the demand for heating has declined (see fig. 8). As average temperatures rise and extreme weather events—such as heat waves—become more common, these trends are expected to continue, although specific impacts will vary by region and season.52 Net electricity demand is projected to increase in every U.S. region, but particularly in southern states, since homes and businesses depend primarily on electricity for air conditioning.

Increases in peak electricity demand caused by extreme high temperatures could potentially strain the capacity of existing electricity infrastructure in some regions, according to DOE. In the summer heat wave of 2006, for example, some Midwest nuclear plants were forced to reduce output and several transformers failed, causing widespread electricity interruptions and making it difficult to access air conditioning. Climate change-related increases in demand could also be exacerbated by a number of ongoing trends, such as population growth and increased building sizes.

Multiple Climate Impacts May Have Compounding Effects

According to DOE and IPCC, some climate change impacts are likely to interact with others, creating a compounding effect. For example:

  • Higher air and water temperatures may contribute to both an increase in electricity demand and a decrease in electricity supply.
  • The effects of sea level rise may be exacerbated by more severe storms and coastal erosion, causing flooding across a larger area. Storms can also damage natural features, such as wetlands, and manmade structures, such as sea walls, that help protect coastal infrastructure from sea level rise and storm surges.
  • Both warmer temperatures and drought heighten the risk of flooding and wildfires, which—alone or in combination—could ultimately limit the amount of electricity that can be generated and transmitted during times of peak demand.

According to DOE, projected increases in air and water temperatures could significantly reduce electricity generation capacity, particularly in the summer months, by (a) decreasing the efficiency of power plant generation, (b) forcing power plant curtailments due to thermal discharge limits, (c) reducing electricity generated through hydropower and photovoltaic solar sources, and (d) increasing the temperature of local water sources

References (a few of them)

Bhatt, V., J. Eckmann, W. C. Horak, and T. J. Wilbanks, Possible Indirect Effects on Energy Production and Distribution in the United States in Effects of Climate Change on Energy Production and Use in the United States. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the subcommittee on Global Change Research (Washington, D.C..: 2007).

Department of Energy, Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, Hardening and Resiliency U.S. Energy Industry Response to Recent Hurricane Seasons (August 16, 2010).

Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather, DOE/PI-0013 (July 2013).

Karl, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, eds., Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), otherwise known as the 2009 National Climate Assessment.

NRC, America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (Washington, D.C.: 2010).

Stone, R. May 24, 2016. Spent fuel fire on U.S. soil could dwarf impact of Fukushima. Science Magazine.

USGCRP, Draft Third National Climate Assessment Report, Chapter 4 – Energy Supply and Use (January 2013).

List of Requesters:  The Honorable Ron Wyden Chairman Committee on Energy and Natural Resources United States Senate, The Honorable Al Franken United States Senate, The Honorable Tom Harkin United States Senate, The Honorable Harry Reid United States Senate The Honorable Mark Udall United States Senate






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