The rich oil shale resources of western Colorado are no secret. They were discovered over a hundred years ago, and they have seen several failed attempts at exploitation, due primarily to cost and technical issues. The most recent oil shale boom went bust on “Black Sunday” in May 1982 when oil companies closed the Colony Oil Shale project near Parachute, Colorado and over 2,000 residents of western Colorado became unemployed overnight. After decades of inaction, however, high gasoline prices led Congress in 2005 to put oil shale planning on a fast track.
Background on oil shale: Oil Shale is a sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials known as kerogen. The rock does not contain oil, but when heated to very high temperatures it releases the kerogen that can be stabilized, upgraded and processed into fuel. Developing oil shale into a fuel resource would be an energy-intensive, environmentally-destructive practice that is not yet commercially viable anywhere in the world. Both strip mining or in-situ mining (which involves heating the ground to more than 700⁰ F to melt out the kerogen) of oil shale require huge amounts of energy. In fact, more energy may go into the development process than would be produced in the oil.
At this point very little is known about the impacts that would likely result from large-scale shale oil development.
Water Impacts Oil shale development is projected to have a dramatic effect on Colorado’s water supplies and potentially its water quality. Water requirements for traditional mining and surface retort oil shale development are well documented, but estimates for in-situ production, which is being proposed at five sites in the Piceance Basin of Colorado, haven’t been made public. This water would have to come from a combination of Colorado’s unused share of the Colorado River – if any remains – and from existing users such as the agricultural and ranching operations scattered across the scrub-covered range and piñon-juniper woodlands.
Producing oil from shale uses water on site both during and after production (to cleanse the production zone after the oil has been extracted). For example, Shell recently disclosed in a permit application for its small research and demonstration site that it will have to rinse its underground production area over 20 times, requiring up to 4 acre-feet each day for over two years and resulting in massive water disposal challenges.
Oil shale development also poses a potentially serious threat to water quality. The process of transforming the kerogen in shale into oil leaves behind salts and numerous toxic, water-soluble chemicals that could leach into the groundwater that is the source of much of the region’s surface water during the critical time when flow is lowest. Flushing these chemicals from the oil shale production zone, as several companies propose, would also create large volumes of highly saline water that will require further treatment. But like oil shale production itself, the technical feasibility of isolating and treating contaminated groundwater has not been demonstrated. The toxic chemicals left behind in the spent shale could potentially pollute important water sources including the Colorado River and some of its tributaries.
Air Impacts Developing oil shale on the west slope is going to require about 12,000 megawatts of electricity from somewhere, probably coal-fired power. But the new limits on ozone proposed by the EPA means that there is very little room for new industrial development that adds to air pollution. And the ozone issue is just the tip of the iceberg – 12,000 megawatts of coal-fired power will have a host of impacts, from mercury in water supplies to a huge increase in global warming pollution from Colorado.
The proposed underground production technologies now being developed by Shell, Chevron and EGL Resources will create major new demands on the energy grid. Our existing power plants are nearing their full production rates. To keep up with demand, the electricity for oil shale development will likely have to come from new power plants. The most readily available fuels for new plants are coal and natural gas. And the currently low cost of coal will make this dirtiest of fossil fuels the more economically attractive choice for power production. Our experts did an analysis of the likely impact that would come from producing one million barrels of oil per day from shale. That’s the low end of what the Department of Energy projects could be operational within two or three decades.
The bottom line: The new power plants needed to support a one million barrel-per-day industry could emit 105,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s about 80 percent more than was released by all existing electric utility generating units in the states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah in 2005.
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions, the major culprits in acid rain, could increase by over 35,000 tons per year each. That’s 20 percent more sulfur dioxide and 16 percent more nitrogen dioxide than was emitted by all of the electrical generating units in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in 2002.
If these emissions are concentrated where the oil shale deposits are, namely the Piceance Basin in Colorado and the Green River Basin in Utah, they could further impair air quality in a region that’s already seeing spikes in air pollution from the natural gas boom.
Wildlife Impacts The land overlying oil shale resources in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming is some of the best wildlife habitat in the West. We don’t know the exact impacts that oil shale could have on wildlife populations, but the BLM has estimated that elk, deer, and aquatic species would be significantly impacted by a full-scale oil-shale industry.