Energy policy — oil shale: Development impacts on water supplies

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Here’s a look at Western Resource Advocate’s report “Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado” released yesterday, from the Daily Sentinel:

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…

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.”

More coverage from Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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…

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.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

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