Water there to start oil shale work, GAO says

It’s likely that the nation’s oil shale states have enough water to start an energy industry based on the rock, but it would soon have to compete with downstream demands, including those of cities and towns, and endangered fish, a government report says.

The Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contains the equivalent of as many as 3 trillion barrels of oil, the Government Accountability Office said in a report issued Monday.

Previous government estimates have placed a 2 trillion-barrel ceiling on the equivalent of barrels of oil trapped in the rock of the three Western states.

The report acknowledged that estimates of the need for water vary widely, depending on the nature of the technologies, some of them unproven, and because different approaches require differing quantities of water.

Need for data

The GAO report says the expected total water needs for the life cycle of oil shale production range from about one to 12 42-gallon barrels of water, with an average of five barrels per barrel of oil produced from in-situ operations, in which shale is heated underground to release petroleum products that could be collected via conventional drilling methods.

Mining operations with surface heating would require two to four barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.

The report calls for the Interior Department to establish comprehensive baseline conditions for groundwater and surface water quality in the Piceance and Uintah basins and establish models for regional groundwater movement and the interaction between groundwater and surface water.

The report also recommended the Interior Department coordinate with the Energy Department and state agencies to carry out the recommendations.

Gathering the baseline information recommended by the agency “is probably a good idea,” and one sought by various industry groups, said Glenn Vawter, executive director of the Glenwood Springs-based National Oil Shale Association.

That kind of information “streamlines the process” as the industry prepares environmental-impact studies on specific projects, Vawter said.

The GAO report “sends a warning flag to those seeking to develop shale,” said David Abelson of Western Resource Advocates, which monitors oil shale.

Diverting large quantities of water to commercial oil shale development would “forever change the social and economic foundation of Western communities,” Abelson said.

Competition for resource

Unless the industry takes care to prevent harm, water resources could be affected by the construction of roads and production facilities, as well as by drawing water out of streams and aquifers, the report said.

“Water is likely to be available for the initial development of an oil shale industry, but the size of an industry in Colorado or Utah may eventually be limited by water availability,” the report said.

Potential competitors for the water needed for oil shale development include demand from municipalities and other industries, demands from the more-populous lower Colorado River basin states under a 1922 agreement, reduced supplies resulting from a warming climate and the need to provide additional water to protect endangered fishes, the report said.

“How we balance these needs and resource limitations against growing statewide water needs remains a mystery,” Abelson said, “but it is an issue we need to solve before considering commercial development.”

Current industry estimates are lower than those of the GAO, said Curtis Moore, executive director of Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale in Grand Junction.

Current estimates for oil shale water use are in the range of one to three barrels water to one barrel of oil, Moore said.

“Some companies are even demonstrating on a small scale they will use less than one barrel of water per barrel of oil,” Moore said.

Americans also have to find a balance between using “some of our water for energy development or whether we should continue on the road of increasing dependence on foreign countries to provide our energy for us,” Moore said.


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