Sec. Ken Salazar: A legacy of protection |

Sec. Ken Salazar: A legacy of protection

Kent Peppler
Guest Opinion

Ken Salazar’s balanced, smart approach to protecting Western water from costly oil-shale speculation has been right for our farmers and ranchers and right for Colorado. With his departure as secretary of the interior, we thank him for his guidance and hope his successor will have similar wisdom and vision.

No one can say for sure how much water oil shale would use, and water supplies already are overburdened as the state moves into the second year of the worst drought in a decade. Over the past year, farmers have had to let fields go fallow because of a lack of water, and ranchers have had to sell off cattle early in the season because the cost of feed was just too high. Salazar’s decision to make oil companies prove that they will not devastate water supplies is what the West needs. We can’t risk having additional resources being squandered on costly oil-shale speculation.

Industry experts have said oil shale could require as much as 140 percent of what Denver Water supplies to municipal residents and local businesses. Oil companies possess water rights on irrigation ditches, pipelines, springs, wells and reservoirs for oil-shale speculation. If oil-shale companies were ever to exercise their 200 or more water rights, Colorado farmers and ranchers would be the first to feel those effects, and Colorado consumers would feel it next as food-production costs are passed along.

Rivers like the Colorado are already overallocated, but demand for water continues to grow. That is going to make for some intense conversations about how to make sure there is enough water to go around. We can’t cover what we already know we’ll need, let alone address a big new demand like oil shale brings to the table.

Energy companies will have only one place to turn for acquiring new water rights: farmers and ranchers. We all need to grasp that what hurts farmers and ranchers hurts Colorado. Agriculture is a keystone of the state’s economy, and water is the key to agriculture. A threat to the water supplies crucial to crops and herds risks our ability to produce food locally and threatens the jobs and economic activity that agricultural activities create.

Salazar’s smart approach to oil shale has protected our rivers and water, and in doing so, it has protected Colorado’s economic wellbeing and that of all Coloradans. Interior has made nearly 700,000 acres of public land available for research, but the current program requires companies prove any technology’s economic viability and determine its impact to water supplies and water quality before being granted a commercial lease.

This is a smart approach given that oil shale is just not ready to harvest. Unlike the booming shale oil resources in North Dakota, Colorado oil shale is actually a rock containing fossilized algae that has to be baked in ovens or melted underground at 700 degrees or more for months or years, to be processed into oil. It takes enormous amounts of energy and water to process oil-shale rock into something you can put in your car. Over the past century, oil shale has been simply too expensive to produce commercially without millions or even billions in taxpayer subsidies. Meanwhile, experiments in oil shale have ruined groundwater, leaching toxic metals and leaving taxpayers with millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

At the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, we support developing America’s energy resources, and we believe that we should do so responsibly. That ethic of responsibility and the conservation of our Western water is why we thank Salazar for his approach to oil shale.

Salazar leaves behind a legacy of thoughtful caution when it comes to decisions about managing public lands in the West and protecting our water for the benefit of farmers and ranchers and our towns and cities alike. We salute his service, thank him and wish him well.

Kent Peppler is president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a Denver-based organization that has worked to support family farmers and ranchers since 1907.