Oil shale development could force a choice between gas and food

Mark Twain allegedly once said, "In the West, whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting over," and it looks like that scenario hasn’t changed much in the past century. Because of water limitations in oil shale country in northwest Colorado, Americans may eventually have to decide what is more important, oil or meat.

Currently, oil from oil shale is more of a concept than a reality because a viable mining technique to extract oil from rock hasn’t been perfected. The enormous amount of coal and natural gas that it would take to run an oil shale plant is another complication. One of the biggest worries, however, is the amount of water it would take to process oil out of rock.

If oil companies make a call on their senior water rights for oil shale production, downstream users like Meeker cattle rancher David Smith or even farmers in California could find water to be an even scarcer commodity than petroleum.

Smith noted oil companies have been buying up old ranches, not for the land but for the senior water rights. Since they haven’t made a call on that water for decades, a lot of water has been adjudicated to junior water rights owners for hay and cattle production in the White River basin in the Meeker area. "When oil shale companies start using their water rights, I can’t say ranches will dry up and blow away, but a lot of local ranchers are going to face some tough decisions," Smith said. 

Smith has been in the cattle ranching business since the 1960s and has earned the respect of his Meeker peers for his water expertise, especially concerning the White River basin. Smith is doubtful that oil shale is going to immediately solve the problem of America’s need for oil, "but the industry is going to do a good job tearing up the land trying," he noted. Smith said agriculture uses a lot of water through irrigation, but most of that water is returned to the streams. "I don’t think that will happen with oil shale."

In an oil shale fact sheet, the Department of Energy estimates that commercially producing oil from shale rock would require 100 to 300 million of gallons of water a day. These figures also include water demands in northwest Colorado where the population could explode to 500,000 during an oil shale boom. And although some relief may come from the water produced as a byproduct of oil shale mining, this ground water will have to be protected from contamination.

Smith wants oil companies to build water storage facilities in northwest Colorado when oil shale goes into production. "Oil companies in good conscience should help out those downstream junior right water users," he said. When the Bureau of Land Management set aside public land for oil shale development, however, no formal agreements about water storage were made.

Another problem Colorado faces is maintaining its agreement with other western states on the quantity of water flowing out of the state. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact apportioned the Colorado River basin with six other states: Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Mexico gets a share of the Colorado River, too. In simple terms, if oil shale companies use their senior water rights and take water out of the river system, the state will have to find water from elsewhere to fulfill its requirement to downstream users. But from where? Already, water rights on the Colorado River have been over-allocated.

Taking more water upstream for oil shale development could also affect agricultural production downstream. Farmers in Arizona and California with the least water rights could be forced to cut their crops for the lack of irrigation water, especially in drought years.

While the water problems of cattle ranchers like David Smith in rural areas like Meeker may seem like small potatoes in the nation’s quest for oil, Americans may soon have to decide whether they want to spend $5 a gallon for gas or possibly $20 for a beef steak and $5 for a head of California lettuce.

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