Study tallies oil shale water rights

Acquisitions could endanger agriculture, Boulder group says

A study by an environmental group says energy companies have acquired hundreds of water rights for oil shale development and that exercising those water rights could transform western Colorado by drying up agricultural lands.

Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, said in the report it released Wednesday that companies own water rights allowing for more than 1.8 million acre feet of storage and more than 11,000 cubic feet per second of diversions in the Colorado and White river basins.

Karin P. Sheldon, the group’s executive director, said energy companies essentially have cornered the market on Western Slope water rights. Exercising these rights for large-scale commercial oil shale development would jeopardize many agricultural uses involving junior water rights and water now leased from energy companies, and harm the ability of Western Slope and Front Range communities to meet future water needs, the group said.

It found that ExxonMobil owns the most rights, with 49 conditional claims and ownership in 48 irrigation ditches. Shell holds 31 conditional rights, has ownership in five irrigation ditches and is in the process of securing rights on the Yampa River.

Several other companies have water rights holdings. Among them, Chevron has 28 conditional rights and ownership in 24 irrigation ditches, and its Unocal subsidiary possesses absolute rights to another 48 wells and springs and owns 13 ditches.

Sheldon said the report demonstrates the need for much more study before decisions are made about possible commercial oil shale development.

“It is not a technology that’s ready for prime time, and the potential impacts are huge,” she said.

The report says a Bureau of Land Management analysis of water needs associated with commercial oil shale development on public land is deficient.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency acknowledged last year that more study on impacts will be needed once the technology for developing oil shale is known. That study would occur before any commercial leasing takes place, he said.

Boyd said that acknowledgment was made in its programmatic environmental impact statement on oil shale development.

Shell is researching oil shale development technology in Rio Blanco County. Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd said he hadn’t looked at the new report in detail, but that the report bases water use estimates on another study that makes an unrealistic assumption of an industry producing 1.5 million barrels of oil per day from shale by 2036. It also overstates associated water use, he said.

Shell’s goal is to meet its water needs for oil shale without impacting agricultural needs, he said.


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