Former EPA water admin Grumbles discusses impact of fracking on resources

How will hydraulic fracturing and other energy recovery methods affect the nation's diminishing water supply? During today's OnPoint, Ben Grumbles, the former assistant administrator for water at U.S. EPA and current president of the Clean Water America Alliance, discusses water management challenges, infrastructure issues and reasons for the rising cost of water.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Ben Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance and a former assistant administrator for Water at EPA. Ben, thanks for coming on the show.

Ben Grumbles: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, hydraulic fracturing and its impacts on water is a big source of debate here in Washington right now. We're hearing differing research, differing views on what the water impacts will be. Do you believe that fracking can be done safely and without impacts on our water supply?

Ben Grumbles: I think it can be done safely. I think the key question is how you define impacts and the future management of the process. The encouraging thing about this to me is that we are finally beginning to ask the questions and look at what the water footprint is of energy production. And for hydraulic fracturing, I think water is, at the heart of it, both quantity and quality and there's some major issues that need more scientific and informed debate.

Monica Trauzzi: So, as it stands right now, as the process stands right now, do you think that it's being safely done now? Or does the technology still need to be developed further to be done safely?

Ben Grumbles: Well, there's no question that it hasn't been done safely in some places. I mean my sense is that "drill, maybe, drill" is the right saying. That there's no question that it offers enormous economic and energy security benefits. The key is, is learning more about the impacts on the surface water and also the water consumption and what the overall cumulative impact is. And I think that the jury is still out on groundwater impacts, although from what I've learned and in the 2004 EPA study that I was involved in, it's not as significant of a risk as other aspects of hydraulic fracturing. But there needs to be more data, more on-the-ground information, like seismic activity and different variables. I think these are all important questions to be asking.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you believe that Congress will ultimately allow the industry to move forward with the practice? Or is there too much bad PR right now?

Ben Grumbles: Right, well, I think the debate some days are better than others in terms of what facts or misinformation are getting out for the Congress. I think the country is -- and I sense the administration is willing to embrace natural gas as a bridge fuel and hydraulic fracturing -- just it's an amazing feat of engineering, this combination of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing. It can be a real game changer and I think Congress realizes that. But hydraulic fracturing is going to be more expensive in the future because of the added and important environmental safeguards and monitoring and reporting requirements.

Monica Trauzzi: So water isn't just playing a role in fracking, it's also playing a role in other energy sources, marine energy, hydropower.

Ben Grumbles: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: What's your take on the overall impact on water if we're using water and affecting water in all these different ways to produce energy?

Ben Grumbles: The Clean Water America Alliance is committed to uniting people and policies for water sustainability and a key component of that is fleshing out the energy/water nexus and getting and getting energy and water policy makers to see the connections. Nuclear power, when I was the head of the environmental agency in Arizona over the last two years, I think one of the most important developments there was the fact that nuclear power is a vital part of the energy for the state. The water consumption has always been an big concern and what Phoenix area did was reclaim their wastewater, their municipal wastewater to be the cooling water source. And so I think that type of future example of recognizing the water footprint of different types of energy production and exploration are going to lead to more sustainable results for watersheds and also for the country.

Monica Trauzzi: And you really focus on a shift in water management in the United States.

Ben Grumbles: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: Where do you think it's most lacking at this point?

Ben Grumbles: Oh, our organization Clean Water America Alliance is trying to shift some of the paradigms. As a country, we really need to take a hard look at some of the older policies we've got. So I think one of them-one of them is to embrace like never before urban water sustainability and helping to shift the paradigm from gray infrastructure to green. That doesn't happen overnight and in some places there's always going to be a need for some concrete, pipes, great gray infrastructure. But the country needs to reduce the regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to plant more trees, protect more wetlands and bio swales and open space areas, use more green roofs, a lot of innovation to shift the paradigm from gray to green.

Monica Trauzzi: It always comes down to funding and money.

Ben Grumbles: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: How much would it cost to really revamp the water infrastructure here in the U.S.?

Ben Grumbles: Great question and part of the answer is the money is there. There is not a lack of money. It's a lot of it in the private sector and it's looking for a way to get access to the public infrastructure systems and the decision makers. The question often comes up about privatization. I think the key is local communities should be able to choose what type of arrangement between the public sector and the private sector can work best. There are a lot of investors who see the value of water infrastructure and know the economy runs on a good water infrastructure system and they will invest. And Monica, the other key, which everyone should start with when they're talking about water sustainability, is full cost pricing, helping to align the prices for water to reflect more accurately what the true cost of the services and maintaining the infrastructure systems are.

Monica Trauzzi: What does that mean, that the price will go up?

Ben Grumbles: As we used to say in Arizona over the last couple of years, the era of cheap water is over. There will be increased pricing for water I think. Now, it's also important to underscore, particularly when there are so many economic challenges and recessions, that there needs to be some type of lifeline rate to take into account the equities, the social hardships that can occur. But I do believe the future -- as people say, water is the oil of the 21st century. Water is going to continue to grow in cost and I think that can be a good thing, because it will reflect the value of water to our economic and environmental future.

Monica Trauzzi: With environmental legislation really stalling in Congress right now, do you expect any movement on water in the near-term, in terms of legislation?

Ben Grumbles: Our goal is to help facilitate that. We are uniquely situated to bring together people of all stripes and persuasions, drinking water, wastewater, energy, transportation and get a focus on water and find constructive and useful middle ground. I think -- I'm encouraged by the increased attention to the probing by Congress on the energy/water nexus. I think the issue over what is and isn't a water regulated under the federal Clean Water Act really does need attention. And the agencies can battle over guidance and nonbinding missives to the fields, but the public really needs greater certainty. And I think that one is going to take more time to build confidence among the different sectors and find some people who are really truly interested in finding middle ground on those definitional and jurisdictional questions.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Ben Grumbles: All right, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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