Energy policy — oil shale: Effects of development on water supplies

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Western Resource Advocates released a new report today that does the science, law and economics around oil shale development. Here’s the release from WRA:

Western Resource Advocates (WRA) released its report, “Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado,” that quantifies the water rights that oil companies have established in western Colorado. The report sheds light on the large volume of water already in the hands of oil shale development interests and warns of the problems that commercial oil shale extraction could cause for Colorado communities, farmers, ranchers, and western rivers.

The “Water on the Rocks” report calls on leaders to carefully consider the full impacts of commercial oil shale development before making decisions. Hundreds of oil shale water rights, totaling almost 2 million acre-feet of stored water and over 11,000cfs of diversions, pepper Colorado’s western river basins and pose challenges to Colorado and other downstream states if these rights are put into use.

“Large scale commercial oil shale development would harm both West Slope and Front Range communities,” said Karin P. Sheldon, WRA’s executive director, “A shift of water to oil shale will dramatically change the landscape in the areas developed. It could mean an end to agriculture and to the historic economic base of these rural communities.”

“Water on the Rocks” is the first report to thoroughly catalogue how much of Colorado’s water is already in the possession of the oil shale industry. The report:

Identifies all major water rights energy companies have targeted for oil shale development in Colorado.

Projects likely water requirements associated with oil shale development based on anticipated technologies.

Analyzes the legal and hydrological issues affecting development of Colorado’s water allocation under the 1922 Colorado River Compact and 1948 Upper Basin Compact.

Explains how the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program affects and limits additional uses of water on the Colorado River.

“Water on the Rocks” reaches the following conclusions:

Commercial oil shale development would transform western Colorado. Oil shale development would transfer water presently used for agriculture to oil shale production. Agricultural lands would be dried-up and thousands of acres would be transformed into industrial landscapes.

Oil shale development in western Colorado would affect Colorado’s Front Range communities. Front Range water providers and the Colorado River Water Conservation District agree that oil shale development may challenge existing water projects and compromise development of future supplies.

Oil shale will accelerate climate change, further stressing water availability.
Huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions caused by oil shale extraction would pose a serious threat to the climate of an already dry region.

Total water demands must be clearly understood before committing to commercial oil shale development. Estimates point out that it will require 1 to 4 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from shale.

The sources and quantity of the energy required to extract oil shale must be identified before development is pursued. Initial estimates indicate that it will require 10 new power plants and 5 new coal mines to produce one million barrels of shale oil per day.

“Despite a significant investment, industry remains years away from establishing the economic viability, technical efficiency, and environmental performance of the technologies,” said David Abelson, Western Resource Advocates oil shale policy advisor. “It is vital that policy makers understand the water, economic, and environmental impacts before committing to a commercial development program.”

To read the report and view maps of where these water rights are located, click on

More coverage from the Denver Business Journal:

The report — “Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado” — was issued Wednesday. It says the rights to nearly 2 million acre-feet of stored water in Colorado, plus the right to divert more water from the state’s western rivers, is already owned by oil companies. The report said if those rights are put to use, shifting water from agriculture and other uses to oil shale development, the affects would reach from local communities to Denver and other Front Range cities.

More coverage from the Denver Post (Mark Jaffe):

Oil companies have amassed nearly 7.5 million acre-feet of water rights for oil-shale development — enough water for double the population of Colorado, according to a study by Western Resource Advocates. “Oil companies have cornered the market” in western Colorado,” said Karin Sheldon, executive director of the nonprofit, environmental group. All those “paper” water rights will not be used, but it is difficult to know which ones will be tapped, Sheldon said. The oil-company water rights — some dating to the 1890s — are senior to those of Front Range water utilities and the Vail and Aspen ski resorts.

Projects for both Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District could be affected, the study says.

ExxonMobil and Shell Exploration & Production — two of the large holders of water rights — both said that estimates of water or oil shale should be lower than current projections and that they will work with other water users.

More coverage from (Idaho Falls): “Tracy Boyd of Shell Exploration & Production questions the group’s projections. He says the group assumes production will be at levels the industry doesn’t expect until much later.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here, here and here.

2 thoughts on “Energy policy — oil shale: Effects of development on water supplies

  1. I’m a “layperson” in this situation. However, I am concerned about the impending globalization of this technique as reported in the NY Times “Energy and Environment” Section on October 9, 2009. Clifford Krauss wrote an article titled “New Way to Tap Gas May Expand Global Supplies.” Now, granted, I know very little about how this process works, and possibly extracting gas is a more environmentally friendly project than extracting oil. What worries me is that the entire article is all energy and no environment. It presents an almost giddy picture of a future extracting gas from shale, and all shall be well. I am researching this online so that I may write a letter of response to the Op-Ed section of the NY Times.

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