Concerns well up over water quality

The county that’s home to Las Vegas, Nev., is supporting a proposed downscaling of federal land available for possible oil shale leasing and calling for thorough analysis of potential water impacts of commercial oil shale and tar sands development.

Clark County’s recent, unanimously passed resolution comes as several other elected officials in Nevada and Arizona also have been sending letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar regarding oil shale, expressing concerns about the need to protect Colorado River water quality and quantity. The officials also back a Bureau of Land Management proposal to sharply reduce acreage available for possible leasing in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

“We believe that a comprehensive study of the cumulative impacts of oil shale development to the Colorado River basin should be conducted before the BLM considers commercial leasing of public lands,” says a letter signed by Nevada state lawmakers Peggy Pierce and Tick Segerblom, Arizona House Minority Whip Anna Tovar and Commissioner Paul Newman of the Arizona Corporate Commission, which oversees utility and transportation matters.

The writers, all Democrats, also cited a Government Accountability Office estimate that industrial-scale oil shale development could require water equivalent to that used by 750,000 households.

Arizona’s House Minority Leader, Democrat Chad Campbell, sent a similar letter, as did Democratic Nevada lawmaker Maggie Carlton, Democratic Nevada state Sen. Mark Manendo and Las Vegas City Council member Bob Coffin.

The writers generally urge Salazar to take a balanced approach to oil shale development. In an archived video on Clark County’s website, commissioners there indicated they weren’t trying to tell Colorado what to do or interfere with its economy. Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the county simply wants to make sure that due diligence to protect water quality from any oil shale development occurs, to ensure “that what’s coming downstream is appropriate for the valley.”

The Colorado River provides water to 2.5 million people in the county.

The commissioners also indicated they were trying to adopt a resolution that wouldn’t interfere with sensitive, ongoing interstate negotiations over Colorado River water.

Chris Treese, a spokesman for western Colorado’s Colorado River Water Conservation District, said if Clark County’s concerns are about water quality, that’s “curious.”

“They’re not going to see any change in their water quality — none,” said Treese, citing the pollution-control regulations that would apply to the industry and amount of dilution that would occur by the time water reaches Las Vegas.

Front Range water entities that rely on Colorado River water also have raised concerns about oil shale’s potential impacts on water quality and the resource’s future availability.

The Front Range Water Council sent a letter to the BLM regarding its draft environmental impact statement analyzing a range of alternatives for how much land should be made available for possible leasing.

The council said that study’s “analysis of impacts to water supply, water quality, and water development is inadequate, in part because it does not analyze the range of impacts associated with various technologies used by oil shale developers.”

The council represents utilities for Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Aurora and other communities collectively meeting the water demands of about 80 percent of the state’s population.

The council says increased population and energy use related to oil shale development would have water ramifications, and the BLM also needs to assess how such development would affect efforts to protect endangered fish in the Colorado River in Colorado.

The BLM says the fish impacts would be analyzed for individual leasing authorizations.

Jeremy Boak, director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, said some companies pursuing efforts to develop oil shale in place underground by means such as heating are working in geological zones isolated from groundwater, minimizing chances of contamination.

Shell, which has been researching the use of a freeze-wall to protect surrounding groundwater, has shown the ability to use a steam process to clean groundwater within the freezewall before the wall is removed, he said.

As for water consumption, Boak believes an oil shale industry might use 2 percent of Colorado’s water, compared to about 80 percent currently for agriculture.

“The water use for oil shale is quite modest,” he said.


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