New report warns against oil shale risks, consequences for Colorado’s water

BOULDER — Pursuing oil shale production in the face of increasing water demands and climate change concerns is ill-advised, a new report from an environmental group here warns.

Shell in-situ oil shale research project in Rio Blanco County (USGS photo).
Colorado’s population is projected to swell by 57 percent over the next 30 years while its next-door neighbor, Utah, could see a 105 percent spike, the Western Resource Advocates report notes. Corresponding water demand from municipalities and industry, in Colorado alone, could increase by as much as 83 percent. Studies estimate large-scale oil shale could drain the West of 122 billion gallons of water by 2050.

“Water is the defining resource in the West,” Mike Chiropolos, chief counsel for Western Resource Advocates, told reporters on a conference call this week. “There is an enormous uncertainty of what the impacts are of utilizing large quantities of that supply.”

The report, “Oil Shale 2050 (pdf), comes in advance of the Bureau of Land Management’s meetings in Colorado and Utah next week that ask for public feedback to the Department of Interior’s plan to dramatically scale back the acreage of lands available for oil shale and tar sands development. Federal officials are proposing to cut the Bush-era oil leasing inventory from 1.9 million acres to 462,000 for oil shale and from 431,000 acres to 91,000 for tar sands.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, however, is sponsoring H.R. 3408, the “Pioneers Act,” which would revive the Bush-era plan to open vast amounts of public lands in Utah, Wyoming and western Colorado to oil shale and tar sands production. His bill made it out of the House Committee on Natural Resources last month, and House Speaker John Boehner has said oil shale revenues will partly pay for national transportation projects in the next five years.

Oil shale production, however, has yet to be proven commercially viable.

Oil shale is not to be confused with shale oil, which is oil trapped in rock formations. Shale oil only recently became a moneymaker as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” techniques have proliferated. Oil shale, in contrast, doesn’t actually contain oil; it contains kerogen, or fossilized algae, locked in rock that requires an extensive heating process for it to be extracted and refined into oil.

Just weeks ago, Chevron abandoned its federal oil shale leases in Colorado to focus on more feasible energy plays — the latest in a long list of oil shale projects gone bust. The most infamous is Exxon’s exit from the massive Colony oil shale project 30 years ago on “Black Sunday” that left communities in western Colorado in economic ruin.

The resource’s potential keeps companies coming back. Shell recently said it had produced 1,700 barrels of oil from an oil shale project on private land in western Colorado and that it is now going to break ground on oil shale development on BLM land. The world’s most extensive deposits are in the Green River Formation, which underlies western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming.

“The history of oil shale is, quite simply, a recurring period of hype followed by bust. Interspersed amongst these cycles, and fueling dreams of striking it rich, are a litany of politicians, speculators, and news stories playing up oil shale’s great promise,” reads the Western Resource Advocates report.

The report draws comparisons between one company’s recent claim that by 2025 in Utah it will be producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day. In 1980, Exxon claimed that by 2010 it would be producing 10 million barrels of oil per day from oil shale. Exxon’s project went bust two years later.

Western Resource Advocates also notes that oil shale production — one of the dirtier forms of energy — would hinder goals to curb carbon emissions. The group says that water in the Colorado River Basin is projected to decrease anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent by 2050 because of climate change. Sucking more water out of the rivers for energy production will pit industry versus communities, and threaten the survival of fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker, the group said.

“Already, because of fossil fuel development, certain rural areas of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming have worse air quality than Los Angeles,” the report states. “The oil shale debate must, likewise, evaluate the potential impacts on our climate. As explained in this report, oil shale is projected to produce roughly 25 percent to 75 percent more greenhouse gases than comparable quantities of conventional crude oil. Colorado has adopted the vitally important goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Other states are advancing similar goals. Large-scale production of oil shale would likely undermine these important goals.”

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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