02/06/2014 12:10 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

Oil Versus Water

If there is a conflict between preserving a supply of fresh water and allowing the water-intensive extraction of fossil fuel, which side gets the nod?

When the water supply in a region is sparse because of permanent arid conditions, it is a no-brainer. Human beings and the crops on which they depend for sustenance cannot survive without a local source of clean fresh water.

By contrast, the disappointed energy entrepreneur almost always has options to ply his trade elsewhere.

The sense of urgency for naturally water-short areas is compounded by scientists' warning that mankind is using fresh water at a faster rate than nature can replace it. That has resulted in the projection that global per capita water availability will decline by half by 2050. It's not surprising when you consider a burgeoning human population faced with the reality that only three percent of the world's water is fresh, and five-sixths of that is locked away in the Antarctic ice cap.

Hence, the high-water-demand fracking process for retrieval of natural gas in the semi-desert portions of the Western United States makes no sense. Keep in mind that even in semi-arid areas, water from sporadic rainfall or underground aquifers if managed judiciously can regenerate and sustain life indefinitely. Why jeopardize a virtually infinite resource for extraction of energy suited solely for a one-time use?

This is not to minimize the need for energy, a legitimate runner-up to water as a basic necessity. But fossil fuel deposits exist in regions with no water shortages and at sites far removed from local drinking water supplies. And as was previously noted, the energy industry also usually has the opportunity to invest in clean, renewable power alternatives.

When water is relatively abundant but vulnerable to contamination from energy development, the health of the waterways should take precedence. Strict environmental safeguards on fossil fuel production facilities should be assiduously enforced. Otherwise a plentiful fresh water resource could be lost to pollution -- and it might not be temporary. Contaminated waterways are not easy to rehabilitate. Nature's self-cleansing capability has its limitations and can often be overwhelmed. (In pioneer days, Americans could drink safely from most streams. How many of those bodies of water would we trust today?)

Given the water-fossil fuel template, mountain top mining in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia is a foolhardy proposition that should be discontinued. It releases coal residue that contaminates streams providing drinking water for communities in the valleys below.

If the Keystone XL Pipeline should come to pass, it should not pass over the aquifer that is the watery lifeblood of much of the Western Plains.

In addition to meeting tighter safety requirements, offshore oil rigs should not be situated in waters exceptionally rich in aquatic life and crucial to a healthy coastal environment.

Bottom line: Water trumps fossil fuels.