No regrets: How to avoid ‘worst case’ with oil shale

In my public life, I often found myself arguing that the best planning occurs while preparing for the “worst case” but hoping for the best. Trouble is, most folks don’t like the negative implications of that. Who wants to go through life expecting the worst?

A little over a year ago, I heard a better description of that same sort of effort at the annual summer meeting of the Colorado Water Congress. The speaker described it as a “no regrets” strategy. Isn’t that what we all really want, to work toward a future that finds us knowing we did all we could to get us there in a planned, thoughtful way?

I found myself thinking about that strategy, or the absence of it, last week when the General Accounting Office released a report done at the request of Congress on water needs of a potential oil shale industry in our region.

Resulting comment and media coverage proved once again that different folks can look at the same information and reach varying conclusions. Or perhaps selectively cull information for data supporting a pre-existing mindset.

“Water there to start planned oil shale work,” said the headline in this very newspaper. An arguably more important part of the story came later in the article.Water is likely to be available for initial development of an oil shale industry, but the size of an industry in Colorado or Utah may eventually “be limited by water availability.”

That’s true if you only consider water that’s still unappropriated in the Colorado, Yampa and White River basins. But, as others before me have noted, while water runs downhill naturally, it can also flow uphill and sideways toward money, even over entire mountain ranges. And certainly away from other uses that don’t generate the kind of cash the energy industry does.

More than 80 percent of Colorado’s water is used in agriculture, growing the crops necessary to keep us well fed. It’s an important industry, but many owners of agricultural water rights are land-and-water rich, but cash-poor.

In northwestern Colorado, much of the water irrigating farms and ranches is already at risk, sold to oil shale companies during the last boom-bust cycle and temporarily leased back for agricultural use. More water could and likely would flow toward industry cash if experimental technologies prove viable.

Some argue oil shale will always be the same “fuel of the future” it’s been for the past century. Others see “the next Saudi Arabia” and potential solutions to our dependence on foreign energy and high prices. Current research and development efforts focus on proving new technologies or enhancing old ones, hoping to minimize water use and the amount of traditional energy necessary to produce a new resource.

There’s the rub.

Industry and others, including the GAO and the Colorado Water Conservation Board and its roundtables, look at pieces of the puzzle, like water, but no one looks at the bigger picture, the cumulative social, economic and environmental issues a developing oil shale industry might overlay on an essentially rural area already struggling with impacts associated with normal population growth and development of natural gas, coal, pipelines and transmission corridors.

Those who try are hamstrung by lack of current information. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement done for the Bureau of Land Management prior to research and development leasing contemplates disruption of the existing social and economic fabric of northwestern Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, but relies primarily on information developed in the boom times of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Local governments under the banner of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado tried to quantify cumulative impacts of all the drivers of growth in the region but faced the same obstacles.

All of this is not devoid of politics and false choices.

If you worry about these sorts of things, you’re branded as anti-industry, an obstructionist, one of those damned environmentalists. Proponents imply that you don’t care about energy independence or our national security.

That’s certainly not the case among the small group of ranchers, water users, local government officials, outdoorsmen and others I’ve joined in calling for an up-to-date study of potential cumulative impacts before any leasing of federal lands for commercial-scale oil shale production occurs.

It’s all about having “no regrets” if the “fuel of the future” ever becomes a reality.

Jim Spehar is a former Grand Junction mayor and Mesa County commissioner who has consulted on growth and energy issues since 1996. Comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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