Water for oil shale

Shell Oil’s unexpected announcement this week that it has filed for an industrial water right on the Yampa River is not evidence that a commercial oil-shale industry is nearly ready for takeoff in Western Colorado. Shell officials still say their decision on whether to proceed with a commercial operation may be as much as a decade away.

But the announcement is an indication that Shell is proceeding cautiously and meticulously in its efforts to reach that decision.

Shell is to be applauded for seeking to protect other water rights — especially agricultural ones — and for working with other Western Slope water groups as it tries to secure water to meet its potential oil-shale needs.

Exactly how large those needs will be is unclear. Along with the Yampa filing, a 45,000 acre-foot reservoir is planned. It would be filled with unappropriated spring runoff water, therefore reducing impact on other users. But Shell officials say they don’t yet know how much water a commercial project will require.

As this newspaper has repeatedly said, many serious questions remain to be answered about a commercial oil-shale industry in this region. Shell is attempting to resolve many of them, and
it is keeping the public better informed than other oil companies.

There are likely to be challenges to Shell’s Yampa River filing, both from water organizations on the Front Range that want the water on the other side of the Continental Divide, and from downstream interests.

But Shell’s proposal could allow the Western Slope to put some of its unused water to use in this region for industrial and municipal needs, while protecting agricultural rights and preventing serious environmental degradation. That’s not a bad plan.


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