Water a Concern in Western Oil Shale Expansion

  • March 12, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

Amid bickering on Capitol Hill about the scope of shale oil extraction on public lands in the West, environmentalists are calling for deeper study into whether the thirsty region could handle the industry's added strain to local and regional water supplies.

The Obama administration last month released a plan that would open up nearly 462,000 acres of land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for the research and development of oil shale — fossilized algae trapped in rock that can be converted into energy in the form of shale oil. That scope of the plan was dramatically reduced from a Bush-era proposal, now being pushed by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would open some 2 million acres of land.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the U.S. holds about half of the world's oil shale reserves, which could help boost the domestic energy supply. But environmentalists worry the difficult extraction of the resource would drain and taint water in the West. 

“Oil shale would foul our air and water, soak up enormous amounts of water, and disrupt local economies,” said David Abelson, a policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, in a statement as the group released a report raising questions about the environmental impacts of shale oil development.

A growing population over the past years has put increased pressure on a water supply that's shrinking at the same time, due to climate change. Demographers expect that growth to continue over the coming decades.

In Utah, where the population is expected to double in the next 50 years, the state's most recent energy plan recommends low-use water technologies.

“Limited quantities of water may be available for new energy Development,” the plan says. “What little may be currently available will undoubtedly decline over the next decade.”

Oil shale development would require large amounts of water, but not just for drilling wells, mining and the high-heat extraction of energy. Water would also be needed for constructing roads and facilities, readying shale oil for processing and meeting the needs of new workers brought to the region.  

A report last year by the Colorado Water Conservation Board estimated it would take 39 billion gallons of water each year to extract 1.5 million barrels of oil per day.

But estimates of the industry's overall water needs remain imprecise. That's largely because the still-evolving technology for shale oil development remains unproven, according to a report last August by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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

Tony Willardson, executive director of the Western States Water Council, says the water usage estimates are still difficult to make. “It really depends on the extraction techniques,” says Willardson, whose group has not yet taken a position on the shale oil question.  

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is taking comments on the proposed plan this week at four public meetings, beginning today in Silt, Colorado. Meanwhile, U.S. House Republicans are pushing the much broader Bush-era plan, which Utah Governor Gary Herbert would support.

Last month Herbert called the president's scaled down plan a “bass-ackwards, peek-a-boo policy.”

“They just take the bulk of the acreage off the market, stifle innovation, and demonstrate, yet again, that this administration is patently hostile toward even the possible development of much needed energy resources," he said in a statement.  

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