California’s Cleaner Fuel Comes at Cost to Water: Report

The water it takes to supply energy to California, the biggest U.S. fuel market, has risen almost four-fold over two decades. And the culprit isn’t oil. It’s biofuels, according to a report.

California’s “water footprint” for energy -- the water used to produce transportation fuels, natural gas and electricity consumed in the state -- rose to 7.7 cubic kilometers in 2012 from 2.1 in 1990, the report prepared by university and environmental researchers showed.

Almost all of the increase came from water used to grow biofuel crops in the U.S. Midwest and overseas to help meet the state’s goals for using low-carbon fuels, according to the paper published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The increase in water demand for biofuels highlights an unintended consequence of low-carbon fuel policies being adopted and considered across the U.S. to curb global warming and reduce the nation’s dependence on oil. Alternative fuels such as ethanol have drawn criticism for years from groups including the National Council of Chain Restaurants that argue they come with hidden costs such as rising food prices.

“As California’s energy policies have sought to mitigate climate change, water systems and resources, considered extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, have received little attention,” the report’s authors said. “The interconnectedness of energy and water systems deserves closer attention in both academic and policy arenas.”

Pacific Institute, Berkeley

While the water used to grow biofuel crops for California rose, the report showed the amount necessary to produce oil declined 30 percent. The “footprint” for natural gas increased 150 percent, according to the article.

The report prepared by Heather Cooley, water program director at the Oakland-based research group Pacific Institute, and Julian Fulton at University of California at Berkeley’s energy and resources group, was published late last month and distributed by e-mail on Monday by the institute.

Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Air Resources Board that oversees the state’s low-carbon fuel standard, said by e-mail that the agency was aware of the report and “will be taking a look.”

The water study comes as California faces an unprecedented drought that has dried up hydropower generation and boosted its use of costlier natural gas-fired electricity. The increase in gas use cost ratepayers about $1.4 billion in the three years ended October 2014, the Pacific Institute said in a separate report issued Tuesday.