Grand Junction Daily Sentinel March 25, 2008, Dennis Webb
The federal government may be too confident in its assumption that there’s enough water to accommodate oil shale development, the Colorado River Water Conservation District believes.
The Glenwood Springs-based district has submitted comments to the BLM about its draft study on oil shale development. The district questions the BLM’s conclusion that the interstate compact governing use of Colorado River water would provide ample water for oil shale projects.
“Considering vagaries of climate and climate change and full use of existing water supply and delivery systems, that may not be the case,” the district said.
The district also raises concerns about existing agricultural and instream flow uses being converted to oil shale uses if energy companies take advantage of their existing conditional water rights. “We have suggested to industry representatives that they consider meeting multiple purposes and objectives when planning for their water infrastructure needs and not only offset impact but also strive to make improvements,” the district says.
Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the river district, said an example of that would be enlarging a reservoir or building a new one to supply not only oil shale needs, but agricultural and instream flow purposes. The White River in northwest Colorado currently has no water storage for agriculture, and farmers and ranchers ran short of water during the drought of 2002, Birch said.
The BLM is studying alternatives for allocating lands for possible commercial oil shale leasing. Its preferred alternative would make about 2 million acres available in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
Birch said the BLM’s draft study predicted about 50,000 acre feet of water would be needed each year for oil shale development in Colorado, but previous projections have forecast the need for much more water.
He said it’s hard to predict water needs when there’s still so much uncertainty about how much oil shale development might occur. The federal government has projected that full production could reach 2 million barrels per day, which would require a lot of water, Birch said. Estimates are that each barrel of oil would take one to three barrels of water to produce.
The river district neither advocates for or opposes energy development, Birch said.
“But we want to try and make sure some good planning gets done,” he said.
The district is helping lead a study that estimates water demands for all energy sectors, including oil shale, natural gas, coal and uranium, in the Colorado, Yampa and White river basins. The study, the result of state legislation, also considers secondary water demands of that development, including for electrical power and a growing population. The study’s initial results are due in a matter of months, and the district is hoping they will be considered in the BLM’s oil shale decision-making.
Water agencies serving Front Range areas recently joined politicians, conservation groups and others in successfully calling for the BLM to provide more time to comment on its oil shale draft plan. The agencies are worried about oil shale’s potential water impacts on current and future state residents.
Birch said the Front Range agencies’ interest in oil shale development isn’t surprising, in part because some of the water rights that they now use are junior to those of energy developers who could demand use of that water.
“So I would suspect that they would be keenly interested,” he said.