Enviro group touts Chevron disclosure: Oil-shale play would gulp 40B gallons of water a year

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]N recently released court documents, Chevron Corporation reported it would have needed to drain the Colorado River of nearly 40 billion gallons of water every year in order to develop an oil-shale program it has since abandoned.

Company engineers estimated they could wring 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Colorado shale rock but that it would take more water every year than could meet the annual needs of a million Colorado residents.

“We exposed oil shale’s hidden truth with this case,” said Rob Harris, lead attorney in the case for Colorado environmental law and policy group Western Resource Advocates. His group forced Chevron in a legal settlement to make the documents public.

“Time-and-again, companies have downplayed their water demands, yet this new evidence shows that large-scale oil-shale development would compromise the Colorado River Basin, an overtaxed river system,” he continued in a release. “The cat is out of the bag, and it is time for other companies to follow Chevron’s lead and disclose their full water demands. Communities, state agencies, and concerned citizens in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming need to have the facts in hand as they plan for the future in our water-scarce region.”

Industry and conservationists have been engaged in a decade-long dance on the practicality of shale extraction in the arid west given the amount of water oil-shale development would require. Industry has disputed water-use estimates calculated by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal Government Accountability Office and the RAND corporation. The documents delivered in the Colorado water court this week, only available to the public due to the court settlement, at last have put an industry number on water use.

The 39,102,120,000 gallons cited in the industry documents roughly match the estimates delivered for years by government and independent researchers.

Earlier this year, when Chevron this year sought to renew its six-year water leases in the state, Western Resource Advocates challenged the company to provide documentation supporting its water-needs claims. The group pointed out that Chevron had in 2012 pulled back from its plan to develop oil shale in the state and so argued that Chevron no longer needed the same amount of water it claimed in previous filings.

Ultimately, Western Resource Advocates agreed to drop its challenge to Chevron water rights if Chevron would agree to allow the court documents containing its water-use estimates to be made available to the public.

Oil-shale extraction has long been a source of speculation and debate. Supporters see it as a great innovation that will bolster future dwindling fossil fuel reserves. Critics see it as an impractical fantasy.

Extracting oil-shale fuel is a labor and resource-intensive process. Shale rock located deep below the earth’s surface contains kerogen, a waxy substance that when liquified can be used to produce oil-like products. But first the shale has to be broken up, brought to the surface and heated to melting. An alternative “in-situ” process, where the shale wold be melted underground and the kerogen then pumped to the surface, remains mostly unproven. Chevron didn’t propose using the in-situ method in Colorado.

Water is used by oil-shale extractors in mining operations, to produce electricity, to keep down dust and supply worker camps, for example.

Details of the litigation and court documents are available at the Western Resource Advocates website here.

chevron summary oil-shale report