Shale tests the waters

 

Between 105 and 315 million gallons of water per day: by current estimates, that's the amount of water that could be swallowed by a 2.5-million-barrel-per-day-oil shale industry. It's an impressive number, but a bit of an abstraction. For a more visceral take on the impacts of oil shale, take a look at the 25 opposition letters filed against Shell Oil's water claim in Colorado's Yampa River. They'll give you a sense of the trade-offs involved -- of just who we'll leave wanting if we slake the thirst of oil shale.

As the Denver Post points out, 25 is an impressive number, too:

"There is a big target on the Yampa. Everyone is looking to tap into it," said Glenn Porzak, a water lawyer for the city of Steamboat Springs.

Water-rights applications usually generate no more than seven protest letters, Porzak said. The biggest case he was ever involved in had about 19.

"This Yampa case is big," he said.   

In December, Shell filed a claim for about an eighth of the river's spring flow. If it gets the rights, the company intends to divert the water to an as-yet-nonexistent reservoir and then direct it to oil shale operations.

Concerned parties range from the Colorado Department of Wildlife (which expressed concern over endangered fish habitat) to nearby Routt County, where ranches and municipalities might be impacted. A letter from the Park Service states that Dinosaur National Monument may feel the effects of the diversion, and Parker, a suburb near Denver, fears Shell's claim will conflict with efforts to find additional water for the front range. Other letters were filed by the BLM, Department of Fish and Wildlife, a coal company, a power company, conservation groups and assorted towns and counties.

The letters are a standard step in a water claim process -- a way for concerned parties to get involved and extract specific project information from an applicant. But where oil shale is concerned, specific information may be hard to come by. Past articles in High Country News have pointed out the speculative side of shale development. As yet, significant technological, energy and economic hurdles stand in the way of commercial production, and that must be why so many of the opposition letters include the word, "speculative," and push Shell to prove it can, and will, put the water toward its stated use.

And of course, larger implications hang in the background. As we try to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, do we really want to pour precious water into an extensive new, and exceptionally dirty, fossil fuel resource? The recent opposition letters aren't the forum for addressing that quandary. That said, one paragraph from the City of Parker brushes up against the issue, albeit in dry legalese:

c.  Applicant’s proposed use may not be beneficial to the people of the State when considered in the context of the limited availability of further Colorado River Basin water to this State.