Ocean aquifers could be drilled by oil rigs retooled for water

A new study has found large quantities of fresh water, trapped below the clay of the seabed - and repurposed oil rigs could be used to get it out.

What to do with oil rigs in a post-oil economy? These large, bulky vessels could have other uses that aren’t quite as environmentally-damaging - like, for instance, extracting fresh water from giant undersea aquifers.

A new study in Nature has found that continental shelves around the world are holding an estimated half a million cubic kilometres of either fresh or low-salinity water. This is good news for many of the world’s largest cities, in places like China, Australia, the Americas and southern Africa where growing populations need more and more fresh water.

Here’s Vincent Post from the US National Centre for Groundwater Research:

The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900. Knowing about these reserves is great news because this volume of water could sustain some regions for decades.

So when it rained, the water would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea. It happened all around the world, and when the sea level rose when ice caps started melting some 20,000 years ago, these areas were covered by the ocean. Many aquifers were - and are still - protected from seawater by layers of clay and sediment that sit on top of them.

There are two ways to access this water -- build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed, or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers.

Oil rigs could be repurposed for this kind of drilling, it’s suggested. They often already drill into aquifers while exploring for oil or gas, ruining the water quality, or even use them as a place dispose of drilling waste like carbon dioxide.

Aquifers, however, are a non-renewable resource, and like most non-renewable things we humans are proving adept at using them up. According to a study from last year, also published in Nature, the footprint of global groundwater use is 3.5 times higher than the rate at which it’s replenished, endangering as many as 1.7 billion people who rely directly upon the most under threat sources.

More water would seem to be intuitively a good thing, but that shouldn’t distract from the need to improve our ability to conserve the water we use - otherwise, much like fracking of natural gas, it’s merely delaying an inevitable disaster. And, while the irony of turning a tool of climate change like an oil rig into something that mitigates it might seem cute, let’s not forget that the infrastructure required to power and transport that water from the rig might well be just as polluting as what it replaces. Aquifer depletion rates have been increasing, in part, because of climate change-driven factors like desertification.

So, in related news, it’s nice to see another piece of oil rig repurposing announced this week - Australian firm AquaGen Technologies wants to deploy its tidal power generators on them. A series of floating buoys move up and down, generating power that can be used to power other equipment, or be transferred back to land, or even be used to desalinate water.

Look, here’s a video:

It’s not much, of course, but it’s a nice start, and another example of what we might come to use dead fossil fuel infrastructure for in the future.

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, August 2013. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide