As Feds Push Oil Shale Forward, Shell Moves to Buy Precious Water Rights

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Shell Oil has filed for the first major water right on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado to fast track its plans to exploit US oil shale — one of the filthiest and most water-intensive fuels on Earth.

The Yampa filing was made on December 30, 2008, the Denver Post reports — three months after the Congressional ban on oil shale production was left to expire, and a month after Bush opened public lands for oil shale leasing.

The Yampa River is the last river basin in the state with unappropriated water, and one of the last remaining wild rivers in the American West. Shell plans to suck 375 cubic feet per second of water from it — or about eight percent of its average flow from April to June. Said Jim Pokrant, a spokesman for the Colorado River Water District:

"That is a lot of water."

Problem is, it’s a lot of water in an already parched region facing record population growth — water that can’t be spared.

Some estimates say it could take up to four barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil from shale. A year of production in Colorado would consume a whopping 378,300 acre-feet of water, or 123 billion gallons, according to a recent study by the Energy Development Water Needs Assessment. Susan Daggett, a commissioner on the Denver Water Board, told the The Los Angeles Times:

"There are estimates that oil shale could use all of the remaining water in upper Colorado River Basin."

Even without oil shale slurping their waters, the state’s major Western Slope river drainages — such as the Yampa, the White and the Colorado — are in bad shape. In fact, studies show that major reservoirs in the 1,450-mile Colorado River drainage could dry up in the next 13 years because of drought and climate change alone.

On top of that, in the eight years President Bush has been in office, the Colorado River watershed has seen more oil and gas drilling than at any time since 1984 — the year record-keeping began — according to a study by Pro Publica and the San Diego Tribune. From the story:

Oil and natural gas drilling in Colorado already require so much water that if its annual demand were satisfied all at once, it would be the equivalent of shutting off most of Southern California’s water for five days. If Colorado’s oil shale is mined, it would turn off the spigot for 79 days.

Good thing that "if" remains big.

Technology to extract oil shale is still experimental, unproven and at least decade away from commercial production. It’s also too expensive to be practical. The Interior Department estimates that it currently costs between $37.75 and $65.21 to produce a barrel of oil from oil shale. That’s compared to $19.50 per barrel for conventional crude.

The biggest factor of all in oil shale’s future is the new US administration. Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, Obama’s pick for Interior Secretary, supported the oil shale moratorium and has criticized the Bush administration’s approach to hurrying along its production. Here he is in a media statement on November 17:

"These regulations are premature and flawed. The Bush Administration has fallen into the trap of allowing political timelines to trump sound policy. Over and over again the Administration has admitted that it has no idea how much of Colorado’s water supply would be required to develop oil shale on a commercial scale, no idea where the power would come from, and no idea whether the technology is even viable on a commercial scale. Yet, rather than completing the necessary research and development, the Bush Administration is rushing ahead with rules for a development process they know little about."

Promising sign. Keep in mind that President Obama would have the power to reverse the Department of Interior’s decision to open up lands for oil shale leasing. He could also fight to reimpose the moratorium.

The only issue here is that Obama hasn’t taken a position on oil shale. He would be wise to. As recently as last night, Obama pledged "to spark the creation of a clean energy economy." A firm "no" on oil shale would send the signal that the US is serious about breaking from its fossil-fuel past and ushering in a clean energy future.  

See also:

New Report Caculates Shale Oil’s Enormous Carbon Footprint 

It’s the Oil Shale, Stupid