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I’m working on adding graphics and trimming down a couple videos made from an extraenvironmentalist podcast of interviews with energy specialists Chris Nelder and Gregor Macdonald; but in the meantime, here is an update on the water-energy-food nexus exacerbated by climate change which I blogged about here. The social consequences are spelled out:

…US farms are already crippled: the Department of Agriculture says the corn (maize) crop is likely to be the worst since 1995. As a result, the Food Price Index (FPI) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization rose 6 per cent in July, to 213.

That is dangerously high, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Massachusetts. He has found that if the FPI goes above 210, riots and unrest become more likely around the world. Both the 2011 Arab Spring and the 2008 riots in places such as Mexico, India, Russia and Belgium may have been partly triggered by high food prices.

More unrest is likely in the next year, although we cannot predict where, says Bar-Yam. That depends on how governments respond… – source

…and on the energy and water front:

…Power plants are a hidden casualty of droughts, says Barbara Carney of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia, because they are completely dependent on water for cooling and make up about half the water usage in the US. That makes them vulnerable in a heat wave. If water levels in the rivers that cool them drop too low, the power plant – already overworked from the heat – won’t be able to draw in enough water. In addition, if the cooling water discharged from a plant raises already-hot river temperatures above certain thresholds, environmental regulations require the plant to shut down.

One nuclear plant in Connecticut recently had to shut down because the sea water used for cooling was too warm. Nationwide, nuclear generation is at its lowest in a decade, with the plants operating at only 93 per cent of capacity.

Nuclear is the thirstiest power source. According to NETL, the average nuclear plant that generates 12.2 million megawatt hours of electricity requires far more water to cool its turbines than other power plants. Nuclear plants need 2725 litres of water per megawatt hour for cooling. Coal or natural gas plants need, on average, only 1890 and 719 litres respectively to produce the same amount of energy….

Bio fuel thirst

Reports of how much energy the US has generated this summer won’t be released for some months, he says. The North American Energy Reliability Corporation’s most recent report (PDF) calls the drought outlook “not optimistic” for energy, but says that most of the US should be able to meet its energy demands this year. The exception is Texas, where resources are expected to be tight.

Utility-scale power isn’t the only energy source being hurt by the drought, however. With corn harvests expected to be as low as 75 per cent of normal yields, biofuel production is also suffering. Compared to other energy sources, biofuel production requires the most water.

…Arjen Hoekstra of the University of Twente in the Netherlands calculates the total water use of different industries – including not just cooling but every step in the supply chain as well. According to his “water footprint calculator”, biofuels require orders of magnitude more water than any other energy source… – source

Some farmers profit from the energy industry’s scramble for water while other farmers are fearful, holding back water for their crops…

…Select Energy sources water for oil companies in drilling hotspots across the country, and some landowners can make between $70,000 and $85,000 over the course of a year and a half by selling the water in their ponds to the company, said Mike Wilson, a regional sales manager at Select Energy.

But many landowners aren’t as willing to give up their water now that supplies have become so scarce.

“Farmers are scared about the water supply, too,” said Jeff Gordon, CEO of Texas Coastal Energy Co., a small oil company that began exploring in Kansas last year. “They are now saying, ‘We need to save our water for our crop and our livestock.’ ”

Related: Farmers hit the jackpot in Kansas oil boom

With two oil wells slated to be drilled in the next month, Texas Coastal is considering drilling its own water well at a cost of between $10,000 and $25,000.

Otherwise, it would have to pay to truck water in from out of state or buy it from local farmers and ranchers. Either method could add 3% to 4% to the overall cost of drilling an oil well. Depending on the size of the well and the amount of water required, that could add up to between $20,000 and $200,000.

To the oil companies, it’s worth it. With oil prices hovering around $90 a barrel and the cost to produce a barrel of oil only around $15, the profits are huge, said Gordon, whose company is still aggressively leasing mineral rights, which gives it rights to drill on certain properties.

If the drought worsens or persists for too much longer, however, it could threaten the oil boom, particularly among the smaller drilling companies that can’t afford the added costs and delays, he said.

Related: Boom chasers, next stop Kansas

“That can cripple a drilling company, as lack of water can basically suspend operations,” he said.

Petro River’s Alba said the drought won’t affect his current drilling plans, but he will carefully assess water availability before expanding into other areas of Kansas.

Scrambling to get the oil companies to stayMike Lanie, the economic development director in Harper County, which is at the center of the oil boom, is determined to keep oil companies from pulling out. – source

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as the American livestock industry have recently urged Congress to suspend the ethanol mandate.

The financial drain on the system from the drought…

The U.S. government recently announced it would buy $170 million in various meats to help drought-stricken farmers. Other costs to the taxpayer from this epic drought include payouts from federal crop insurance programs:

Crop insurance losses: Your tax dollars on the hook
The drought of 2012 is also likely to result in record payouts from the federal crop insurance program. This taxpayer-funded program subsidizes insurance for farmers and also partially compensates private insurers, with additional emergency assistance that kicks in during extreme events like the current drought.

Last year, weather-related events led to crop insurance claims of $10.7 billion as of April 30, 2012. According to Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, this year’s losses could add up to $30 to $40 billion. Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois extension economist, calculates that 2012 insurance payouts for Illinois corn alone could top $3.2 billion. – source

Our response to the primary underlying cause of these increasingly disastrous droughts has been to find more drought-resistant crops and livestock. I suppose this strategy will work up to a point, but it doesn’t get at the root of the problem which is industrial civilization’s unbreakable marriage to fossil fuels.