SXSW Eco: Can We All Just Get Along?

Former Gov. Bill Ritter considers the possibility of cooperation

Can states think beyond their own water and power needs? As one of the first speakers at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter painted a fairly bleak picture on Oct. 4 of the state of interstate compacts.

As Mark Twain is popularly thought to have said, "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over." That holds truer than ever in the South and West, where ballooning populations, expanding cities, and the "new normal" of drought conditions are placing extra pressures on the water supply. Ritter argued that "there's this real significant relationship between energy, water, and food production." Case in point: the oil and gas fields of the Niobrara shale shared by Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. Ritter said, "Because of water laws and because of, to some extent, water scarcity, there are oil and gas companies that are trucking their water in from Wyoming." He added, drily, "That's not a sustainable practice." Not that the petrochemical firms have to be a permanent enemy of other water users, Ritter said: "There are a lot of things being done where natural gas is concerned to find ways to recover additional water and make it once again potable."

The core issue is to ensure that states like Texas, whose economy depends on oil, gas, and farming, do not have to choose between those industries when it comes to water allocation. Add to that resource competition between states, and "I don't think that there's any regional thinking," Ritter said. There are a few exceptions, such as the recent passage by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of Order No. 1000, "which is trying to incentivize the buildup of regional transmission organizations. That's a good thing," Ritter said, "but other than that, there is more competition between the states than there is regional thinking."

More worryingly, several states have actually backed out of existing environmental agreements. In May, New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Chris­tie withdrew from the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and its mild target of reducing power sector carbon-dioxide emissions by 10% by 2018. Similarly, Ritter said: "There was a Western Climate Initiative that involved several states. But when Governor [Janet] Napolitano left and Governor [Jan] Brewer came in, Arizona pulled out of the initiative. When [Gov. Jon] Huntsman left and [Gov. Gary] Herbert came in, Utah pulled out of the initiative." When it comes to creative resource thinking, he added, "Because of the prospect of change in leadership and even of political direction of a state, again it argues in favor of us doing it nationally."

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