Oil shale looms large at key IBCC water meeting in Crested Butte

Oil shale development was the 800-pound camel in the room last week during a meeting in Crested Butte of the Interbasin Compact Committee, according to the Pueblo Chieftain.

The IBCC and nine river-basin roundtables were set up by the Colorado Legislature in 2005 to try to bring together all the various water users and stakeholders on both Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope to reach consensus on some long-range trans-basin water projects.

But the projected doubling of the state’s population to 10 million people by 2050, most of whom would live on the relatively parched Front Range, means there’s growing pressure to divert the more bountiful water supplies of the Western Slope mountains to suburban lawns in Aurora, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Denver.

The Chieftain quoted Western Slope ranchers worried about their way of life drying up in the face of unrelenting growth on the Front Range, and questioning why agriculture is always the presumed sacrificial lamb. Throw into that mix Western Slope energy development — especially the specter of oil shale development — and it’s little wonder the IBCC has been able to accomplish very little but talk over the last four years.

This from today’s Chieftain article: “The Western Slope has revived the specter of oil shale, which could drink up the remaining allocation of water to Colorado under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Many are skeptical because the energy and water costs of producing oil shale are so high, no matter what price is set by the world market.”

In fact, even industry officials acknowledge oil shale production consumes as much as three barrels of water for every barrel of oil. Some forms of production take up to five barrels of water for every barrel of oil. Even with those daunting numbers in mind, oil companies for decades have been buying up Western Slope water rights and continue to do so to this day despite the commercially unproven nature of the oil shale industry.

The Chieftain story paints this grim picture of Colorado’s water future as detailed during last week’s IBCC meeting:

“The state has between 445,000 and 1.438 million acre-feet of water to develop from the Colorado River basin under the Colorado River Compact, although prolonged drought or climate change could affect the amount.

”Right now, the state uses 1.2 million acre-feet for treated water supplies, and will need at least 2 million acre-feet by 2050. Only about one-third of the new supply will be developed under identified projects such as Colorado Springs Southern Delivery System, the Arkansas Valley Conduit, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, Aurora’s Prairie Waters or the Windy Gap water supply firming project. Oil shale development could require as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water, if it ever happens.

“We need to recognize that decisions made on oil shale are made on the international oil market, and not water availability,” said Chips Barry, manager of Denver Water. “In order to do a risk analysis, you need to put a number in and express that you have no faith whatsoever in that number.”

The Western Slope interests counter that energy development is a real factor, not an intangible variable.

“Energy is actively seeking new water rights and buying existing water rights,” said Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado Water Conservation District.”

The issue has become so politically charged that it blew up on Gov. Bill Ritter last week during testimony on Colorado’s New Energy Economy on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, questioned why Ritter wasn’t back home developing the state’s massive oil shale reserves. Ritter later fired back that the industry first needs to prove it can coexist with other water users in the state.

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