Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
T. Boone Pickens: Water is the New Oil

As recently reported by Business Week, T. Boone Pickens thinks water is the “new oil’ and he’s betting $100 million that he is correct.  As the article notes:

“…Pickens has also bought up the rights to a considerable amount of water that lies below this part of the High Plains in a vast aquifer that came into existence millions of years ago. …Pickens owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is looking to control even more. He hopes to sell the water he already has, some 65 billion gallons a year, to Dallas, transporting it over 250 miles, 11 counties, and about 650 tracts of private property. 

…In the coming decades, as growing numbers of people live in urban areas and climate change makes some regions much more prone to drought, water—or what many are calling “blue gold”—will become an increasingly scarce resource. By 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. Pickens understands that. And while Texas is unusually lax in its laws about pumping groundwater, the rush to control water resources is gathering speed around the planet. In Australia, now in the sixth year of a drought, brokers in urban areas are buying up water rights from farmers. Rural residents around the U.S. are trying to sell their land (and water) to multi- national water bottlers like Nestlé.  Companies that use large quantities of the precious resource to run their businesses are seeking to lock up water supplies. One is Royal Dutch Shell, which is buying groundwater rights in Colorado as it prepares to drill for oil in the shale deposits there.

…In 1996 a local water utility made its first big purchase of groundwater rights in the Panhandle. The utility, known as the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA), bought nearly 43,000 acres of water, some of it just south of Pickens’ ranch, for $14.5 million. (Property owners in Texas, and elsewhere, can sell their water separately from the land above it.) That Roberts County would become the stomping ground for the Panhandle water wars was perhaps inevitable. Underneath it lies one of the world’s largest repositories of water, moving slowly among layers of gravel, sand, and silt. The Ogallala Aquifer stretches from Texas to South Dakota and contains a quadrillion gallons of water—enough to cover the U.S. mainland to a depth of almost two feet. Yet the extensive irrigation necessary to grow corn, cotton, and wheat in west Texas has left the Ogallala nearly depleted in some places. It is not an aquifer that is easily or quickly replenished. But the land in Roberts County is unsuited for agriculture, and so the Ogallala there is largely untapped.…In 1999 he created a company called Mesa Water and began to accumulate water rights so he could strike a deal with another city altogether. Pickens was confident he could sell his water: The population of Texas was expected to jump 40% by 2020, mostly in urban areas one dry season away from drought.

Pickens’ decision to get into the water business was regarded by some in the Panhandle as nothing more, or less, than a shrewd move by a man who knows the value of commodities. The economy of the High Plains region is based on people taking out the natural resources and selling them. If water that can’t be used for farming ends up in the taps of city residents hundreds of miles away, that’s fine. Pickens says he’s buying stranded, surplus water that needs to be rescued. Kim Flowers, who runs an 8,300-acre ranch in Roberts County, speaks for many landowners when she says: “People can do with their water as they wish as long as they’re not wasting it.”

In all, Pickens, CRMWA, and Amarillo have spent about $150 million to buy up nearly 80% of the water rights in Roberts County, undermining and outbidding one another along the way. One unsurprising effect of their competition is that the price of an acre of water has in some places doubled, to $600. That’s something in which Pickens takes pride. Much as he did in the 1980s, when he went after big oil companies he believed weren’t doing right by their shareholders, Pickens now talks about creating value for Roberts County landowners. They make money from selling their water while continuing to live, run cattle, and hunt on their property. “I told them I was going to raise the value of the land, and I accomplished that. The landowners are all tickled to death. I made our water worth something. And anybody with any sense would sell it.”

…In 2002, Pickens began approaching several of Texas’ sprawling cities, all of which share one defining feature: Their populations are growing so quickly that they are constantly in need of new supplies of water. But with water, as with so much else, location is critical. And Pickens’ water is far, far away from anyplace that might buy it. Pickens knew he’d have to build a pipeline, and to do so at anything resembling a reasonable cost, he’d need the power of eminent domain—the right of a government entity to force the sale of private property for the public good. Water utilities have that right. If Dallas agreed to buy Pickens’ water, it could extend such authority to him. But Dallas deemed Pickens’ price too high and declined to do a deal. So Pickens and his executives tried to create a Fresh Water Supply District—a government entity that would have that power. But they couldn’t get it through.

Over the next several years, Pickens continued accumulating water rights and began to lease other land, this time with the idea of creating the world’s biggest wind farm. “One of the great wind areas is right up where we are,” says Robert L. Stillwell, Pickens’ general counsel. “You can set it right on top of where the water is.” And since, one day anyway, Dallas may well buy both, Mesa could use a single right-of-way for the water pipeline and the electric lines. In Roberts County there would be real economic benefits from the wind farm. “The wind is meant to sweeten the deal,” says Representative Chisum. “The big money for Pickens is in the water…”

This entry was posted on Friday, June 13th, 2008 at 2:48 pm and is filed under Ogallala Aquifer, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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