Oil (shale), water may mix poorly

The study released this week by a Boulder-based environmental group isn’t the definitive word on how much water will be needed for commercial oil-shale development. But it reiterates what this newspaper and many others in Colorado have been saying for years.

A commercial oil-shale industry in western Colorado has the potential to be the biggest water guzzler this region has ever seen, sucking up much of the water now flowing to agriculture and possibly impacting water availability for cities and towns in Colorado.

Understanding that there are numerous uncertainties regarding how much water oil companies may actually use in oil-shale development, Western Resource Advocates in
Boulder looked at the water issue from a different angle: How much water have they applied for legally?

The numbers are eye-catching, to say the least. Six oil companies already have filed for water rights on the Colorado and White rivers totaling more than 7.2 million acre feet. That’s the entire annual allocation for the four states in the Upper Colorado River Basin, including Colorado.

Those filings don’t mean the entire Upper Colorado Basin would be dried up to serve oil shale.

Many of the filings are for conditional rights that might only be available in years with heavy spring runoff. Others might never be used, as oil companies develop technologies that require less water.

But, if only a quarter of those rights were ever put into play, it would still be a massive drain on a precious commodity on the Western Slope.

Furthermore, agriculture would bear the brunt of the impact. The oil companies have ownership in dozens of irrigation ditches on the Western Slope and own some of them outright.

As Chris Treese of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District
put it, “Any large transfer of water to oil shale would shift the West Slope landscape from an agricultural landscape to an industrial one.”

How much water eventually might be required by oil shale will depend on the technology used, its energy demands and the scale of a commercial industry.

Those are not insignificant questions whose answers are still unknown. The same is true for water, although it is clear oil companies have made legal filings to ensure they have massive amounts of water available. All the more reason for the federal government to hold off on leasing of public lands for commercial oil-shale development until these important questions can be answered.


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