Water and Oil DO mix! "Unitization" anyone?

Oil rig. Photo courtesy of Billy Hawthorn, Creative Commons Licensing, 2008.

Oil rig. Photo courtesy of Billy Hawthorn, Creative Commons Licensing, 2008.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 PNW Water Conference organized and sponsored by a variety of state agencies, research institutes, the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Agriculture, and the three land-grant universities in the Pacific Northwest (WSU, OSU and Idaho).  It was a marvelous conference–full of good ideas and a nice linkage between land use and water, something that is often neglected by people working in both camps.

At the conference, OSU colleague Todd Jarvis gave a compelling final talk to an almost packed house on “Peak Water Meets Peak Oil: Moving Towards Unitization of Shared Groundwater.”  You can view it here:

The talk brought up a gnarly, uncomfortable truth about groundwater. Namely, ground water managers could learn a lot from how oil companies manage the world’s oil fields.

“Say what!?” you may exclaim. The crowd of generally sympathetic water wonks was also pretty uncomfortable with the comparison. Global oil is purportedly running out, and water is renewed each day by a familiar-to-every-grade-school-kid water cycle. Not so says Jarvis, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds.  While we may very well see a day soon when oil is no longer used as extensively as we do today, since the 1970s, oil extraction has been carefully planned and managed so that wells don’t interfer with each other, and so that oil fields are sustained for the future instead of collapsing when the oil is drained. Furthermore, well fields are managed as market-controlled common-pool resources–where petroleum companies buy into them the same way that shareholders would any type of publicly-traded company (e.g. Microsoft, Ford Motor Company, or Proctor and Gamble). To extract, a company simply buys a right to the field, then has responsibilities for maintaining it in the long run. This is called “unitization” and could quite possibly be the next big thing with managing groundwater.

At present, however, the world’s groundwater is far from unitized.  In the Western United States, for example, our approach is generally to extract it without considering what happens when wells are too closely spaced (they interfere with each other), or if the over-extraction leads to damage (such as collapse of the rock and soil layers when the water is removed from between them). And with few exceptions, U.S. water law engages well owners in a race to the bottom of the proverbial bucket with each other. The bigger pump and the bigger user often wins, while at the same time the millions of exempt (unregulated) wells owned by individual property owners leads to a “death by a thousand cuts” for a whole aquifer and the collective group’s ability to extract more water in the future (see my recent post on that subject). Lastly,  wells have frequently been abandoned and left as open pathways for pollution into the community aquifer, not to mention the myriad other ways for groundwater to be polluted by storage tanks, septic systems or leaching from above.

Abandoned wells are pathways to groundwater pollution. Photo courtesy of Gail Glick-Andrews, OSU.

Abandoned wells are pathways to groundwater contamination. Perhaps making them an aquifer shareholder problem would help? Photo courtesy of Gail Glick-Andrews, OSU.

In fact, in most aquifers worldwide, extraction of water is quite similar to nonrenewable oil in that it is extracted much faster than it can be replenished by natural recharge. Pumping of groundwater from aquifers in my native desert Southwest exceeds natural recharge by millions of years since the “fossil” water deposited into some of Arizona’s alluvial basins arrived with the last few ice ages and could not be replaced by the 7-17″ of annual rainfall without a few more million years (of no extraction and normal rainfall patterns)! Even aquifers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the groundwater of the  Coast Range valleys may not be replenished at the same rate as the extraction takes place. Wet climates are not at all immune from over-extraction. Professor Robert Glennon from the University of Arizona has written about this phenomenon in his excellent book Water Follies.

In fact, say Jarvis, there are already several cases local and global where groundwater management looks a lot like oil field management. Time will tell, but it just might work to help slow the race to the pump that is vexing groundwater-dependent regions of the world.

So if you’re a groundwater watcher, look for more mention of unitization. Todd has certainly made a splash with his presentation and a short accompanying piece in the “Green Inc.” blog hosted by the New York Times. Perhaps the hard lessons of petroleum geologists and the boom bust cycles of the oil industry will work as well for groundwater managers, large and small.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

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3 thoughts on “Water and Oil DO mix! "Unitization" anyone?

  1. Todd Jarvis responded to me privately in an email and granted permission to post this excellent clarification:

    Unitization works with stakeholders (oil companies) by consolidating of all, or a large percentage of royalty or participating interests, in a ‘pool’ as will permit reservoir engineers to plan operation of the pool.

    In the case of groundwater, UC Santa Barbara resource economist Gary Libecap, Ph.D. proposed that it be defined as “government-mandated unitization of groundwater…is a solution to excessive access and drawdown…a single ‘unit operator’ extracts from and develops the reservoir. All other parties share in the net returns as share holders.”

    In my presentation, I showed that unitization can extend beyond the principles of allocation that Libecap proposed to ecosystem services and even the spirituality of water. The idea is to create a philosophy that “we are all in this together” and can operate as “aquifer communities” as defined by groundwater economist Tushaar Shah of the International Water Management Institute.

    • Cel, Please read the post: this is metaphor in the title only. Jarvis’ thesis is not a time waster at all. If you manage a fresh water well field the way you’d manage an oil well field, you might find some benefits–namely that the well owners don’t own them forever and they might be obligated to take care not to mine the water to the last drop. The point: look at other approaches to managing common resources and try them with water.

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