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Environmentalists: Shale imperils other water uses

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” An environmental group says oil companies have rights to large volumes of Colorado water for producing oil shale, calling it a potentially dangerous drain in an already water-scarce area.

A report released Wednesday by Boulder-based Western Resource says that companies have rights totaling about 7.2 million acre-feet in diversions from western Colorado waterways and nearly 2 million acre-feet in stored water.

“The companies have essentially cornered the market in water rights in western Colorado,” said Karin Sheldon, the group’s executive director.



Companies are still testing the best ways to tap the vast reserves locked in rock below Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Commercial production is likely at least a decade off.

But the Bush administration last year approved a plan to make nearly 2 million acres of public land available for oil shale development and finalized rules for commercial production.




Sheldon said in a teleconference that the report “Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado” is a warning that public debate is needed on oil shale.

“It’s not a technology that’s ready for prime time, and the potential impacts are huge,” Sheldon said.

Water tops the list of concerns for state officials. A climate change study done last year for the Colorado Water Conservation Board predicts that rising temperatures could decrease snowmelt by 5 percent to 20 percent by 2050.

Melting snow contributes about 80 percent of the water in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs, which comprise much of the state’s water supply.

Harris Sherman, head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said less runoff and more water diversions could also affect the state’s ability to deliver water required under the 1922 Colorado River compact, which lays out the shares of the seven Western states that use it.

Colorado water managers are also wondering how they’ll meet the demands of the additional 5 million people expected to move to the state by 2050.

“Add oil shale to the mix and you have a potential game-changer,” Sherman said.

The report by Western Resource Advocates says that 378,000 acre feet of water a year could be needed for commercial oil production.

An acre foot of water is roughly 326,000 gallons.

Estimates of the amount of water needed to produce one barrel of oil from shale range from four to three barrels. Industry officials have said the actual amount likely will be lower.

Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd questioned the projections in the report. He said the report assumes production will be at levels the industry doesn’t expect until much later.

“The rights that we have, for the most part, are conditional,” Boyd said. “The water has to be there legally and physically.”

Boyd said Shell won’t divert water from agriculture for its project.

Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are thought to hold 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil in shale. The catch is that companies are still working on ways to economically tap the oil.

Shell is considered further along than many other companies trying to squeeze out of the rock. But it is still testing its technology on its land in northwest Colorado and hasn’t started working on the 160-acre leases it received in 2006 for research and development on public land.

Some of the waters rights held by oil companies in western Colorado date to the 1950s. ExxonMobil owns the most rights, including stakes in 48 irrigation ditches, according to the report.

Shell is next. It has also applied for water rights on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, represents 11 counties in western and southern Colorado. She said she worries that wide-scale oil shale development could divert water from agriculture, recreation and other industries that sustain the area’s economy.

“Commercial oil shale development has tremendous potential to transform western Colorado communities,” Schwartz said.

Sheldon said the hope is that her group’s report will prompt more public debate and lead the Obama administration to take another look at the federal oil shale plan.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently reversed the Bush administration’s decision to issue a second round of research leases on public land. As a Colorado senator, Salazar criticized moving ahead with oil shale regulations.

Environmental groups are suing to overturn the regulations. They claim the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management didn’t follow federal environmental laws when they approved the plan and regulations.

The last attempt to mine Colorado’s oil shale, considered the region’s richest, went bust when oil prices dropped and government subsidies dried up. People still refer to “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, when Exxon shut down a $5 billion project near the West Slope town of Parachute, putting 2,200 people out of work.


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