Trail's End 2 Image crdit:Flickr, Woody H1
In Texas, so far, it has been those living closest to the land who are hardest hit by the drought. Metro areas like Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston have their air conditioning, their drinking water and fountains in the mall, and jobs--for as long as the power plants stay on line. A hint of bad news is on the horizon, however, as electric power reliability is being threatened from cooling ponds and river intake pipes drying up.
As reported in the Houston Chronicle: "'A number of Texas power plants may need to cut back operations or shut down if the drought continues into the fall, as water levels in many plant cooling reservoirs continue to drop,' said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system planning and operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas."
Where does this scenario lead as Texas passes through 2012? NOAA says La Niña is back, indicating that the severe drought is likely to continue...They're exploring the possibility of bringing back on line mothballed gas-fired power plants--presumably to take advantage of what cooling water exists still in the old cooling ponds and to avert having to comply with modern pollution control standards for coal burning generators. [This paragraph was corrected based on a reader submitted comment.]
Here are some other potential consequences of long term drought in Texas continuing for 1 to 3 additional years. Most are obvious, but it's the human tendency to overlook the obvious until it bites that makes it important to think about them now.
Short term (1 more year)
Texas is the highest ranked state for total coal consumption. Much of that coal goes for commercial electricity production. Another big chunk goes to industrial boilers. Both operations need make-up water and condenser cooling water. When the water goes, they go down.
What coal is mined in Texas is relatively sulfur-laden, making power production and industrial boiler operation relatively expensive if modern emission standards are to be met.
Bringing mothballed plants back online instead of pushing for more energy efficiency opens the door for more political pressure from Texas politicians to "kill EPA" to avoid the need to install and operate modern stack scrubbers on coal burning units.
For a flavor of what's to come we have only to look to Texas Governor RIck Perry, who seems to channel the vibe pretty well and gets only the rare local challenge, like this one.
Perry warned last year that "tens of thousands" of Texas jobs would vanish because the Environmental Protection Agency , under President Barack Obama, was demanding changes in dozens of Texas industrial plants' state air permits.
"Washington's latest attempt to intrude on the state's authority not only undermines Texas' successful clean-air programs, but it will cost the state tens of thousands of jobs," Perry said in a news release on June 15, 2010.
Perry repeated the "tens of thousands" figure in speeches, statements and news releases.
The actual number of jobs lost, however, was zero.
Instead of dealing with the realities of climate change--regardless of whether you or they think it is caused by human activities--Texas politicians will keep playing the lynch mob role toward EPA, at least until the next Presidential election is over. It works as a political strategy - for now.
Mid-term consequences (2 more years)
Around late summer of 2012, people will see that blaming EPA doesn't help. Air conditioning, lighting, water pumps, all that power driven stuff will become less reliable and life in Texas could start to resemble life in Mexico. The miracle that has been the Texas economy might trip on the cracks. (Generator sales will skyrocket, though, if you are looking to start up a small business. This is Texas, so it will be BIG generators you have to get into.)
Cities, where money and political power are centered, will make moves to take water from others who have less power or if a buck can be made or saved.
There will be insanely impractical calls to pipe Mississippi flood waters across the plains to Texas, right now, with the possible expectation that Uncle Sam should pay. Northern Mexico has the same drought that Texas has. Mexico will want some of that flood water in a pipe. All that talk about the Mexican border wall will fade away as water emerges as topic number one.
The very same politicians who wanted to "kill EPA" will start calling for neighboring states to sell them electricity at a reduced rate and they will want FERC concurrance. The irony will not be lost on those who have tracked how, for years, Texas has resisted regional grid links.
Executives who relocated headquarters to Texas to take advantage of the low State income taxes are going to start thinking about moving their families to where the sweet water still flows.
Water consuming industrial operations on either side of the Texas-Mexico border are going to have a struggle to stay in production. Wall Street analysts will take note.
Long term consequences
No one can predict regional climate several years ahead. Long term dryness, however, is looking increasingly to be a plausible future direction. Let's assume for the sake of taking this scenario to its end point, then, that Texas' drought does not let up substantially for 3 years or more. It's pure speculation, but go with me on this.
States not affected by drought will have to make up the lost food and fiber production, leaving less to export to Asia. That will make more negative, still, the US balance of trade.
Water intensive manufacturing sectors such as petrochemical production, an important part of the Texas economy, will be stressed by lack of water for industrial uses. US balance of trade may be adversely affected here as well. (Refineries that produce liquid fuel and crackers that produce ethylene for plastic all need water.) You can't just move refineries and pipelines and raw material suppliers to other states in a matter of months. It would take years to do that so the tendency may be instead to just wait out the return of the rains. Could lead to liquid fuel and polymer price volatility.
There will be proposals to construct desalination plants to keep communities and industries supplied with water. (Australia has already gone there.)
As for the residents of metropolitan areas, some of their destinies will have been captured in the long-ago penned verses of Woody Guthrie's "So Long, Its Been Good To Know Yuh"
Update: It definitely would be possible to construct air cooled condensers for power plant turbines. That would be a very expensive option, however, and if Texans are receptive already to the 'kill EPA' cries of elected officials, that lynch mob sentiment could be easily redirected toward the folks who would authorize spending a lot more money on equipment than EPA ever demanded.