U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- Environmentalists say mining oil out of shale
could require nearly three times the electricity used by the entire
state of Colorado in 2005 and consume as much water each year as two
cities the size Denver.
That's why they're insisting questions about water and air
pollutions be answered before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management
moves forward on large-scale commercial oil shale development.
Industry officials say it's too early to quantify the potential
impacts of a process that is still evolving.
Environmentalists say an oil shale boom could strain area water
supplies and increase air pollution if more coal-fired power plants
are built to power the mining of oil locked in rock in western
Colorado, southwest Wyoming and eastern Utah.
"Our concern is that they're making land management decisions
before they've got complete information or without looking seriously
at the information they do have," said Bob Randall, an attorney with
Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and
Randall said the environmental groups' projections on water and
energy use are based largely on government estimates and a 2005
report by the Rand Corp. for the U.S. Department of Energy.
"The new power plants needed for oil shale production would exact
public health consequences that would seriously undermine any benefit
from oil shale projects," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah
Physicians for Healthy Environment.
The criticism comes as Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was expected to
offer an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill that would
restrict using federal funds in the new budget for final oil-shale
regulations or conducting commercial lease sales.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, planned to propose an opposing
amendment to block attempts to restrict oil shale funding. He noted
some estimates place the region's oil shale reserves as high as 2
trillion barrels of recoverable oil.
But the oil, or kerogen, is locked in layers of hard rock, and the
technology for affordably heating and extracting the liquid is still
"With people having to choose between food and putting gas in
their cars, it is nothing short of cruel to stand in the way of
tapping new sources of fuel," Cannon said.
Several state and local elected officials, though, have urged the
federal government to move cautiously. Many of them lived through the
oil shale bust of the early 1980s. The final blow came on May 2,
1982, still referred to as "Black Sunday," when oil prices fell and
government subsidies dried up, moving Exxon to shut down its $5
billion project in western Colorado.
The industry is taking measured steps. Shell Frontier Oil and Gas
Inc. is continuing to refine its process at a private test site in
western Colorado, delaying plans to start work on experimental
oil-shale operations on federal land.
Shell has invested tens of millions of dollars and more than a
decade on a process that heats the oil underground, creates a freeze
wall to protect groundwater and pumps the oil to the surface.
Washington-based spokeswoman Heather Feeney said the BLM is
preparing a programmatic environmental impact statement on oil shale
as directed by the 2005 federal energy bill. The BLM expects to
publish the draft document later this summer.
"It was very specific. There is no doubt that is what we're
supposed to be doing," Feeney said.
BLM officials have said they're behind schedule. The final review
was due in February.
The programmatic analysis, which has a broader scope than a
typical review, will thoroughly address issues of water and air
quality, Feeney said. More in-depth analyses will be done as specific
projects are proposed.
Feeney said any oil shale projects will have to get the necessary
Shell spokeswoman Jill Davis said she couldn't estimate how much
water or energy the company will use in commercial production because
the process is still being tested.
"We have acknowledged that the process is currently energy
intensive," Davis said. "It is our goal to reduce our power demand
and reduce our efficiency."
Based on test results, Davis said Shell believes it can eventually
produce three units of energy for every unit required. The company
hasn't decided whether to use coal, natural gas or wind for new power
"Protecting air quality is a key objective of Shell's globally,"
Davis questioned the estimated water use cited by
environmentalists from a 2006 report by researchers at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory. She said the projection of between one and three
barrels of water per barrel of oil produced is a reasonable estimate,
but added that it doesn't take into account Shell's plans to recycle
water, especially when rinsing the equipment underground.
Chevron USA and Midland, Texas-based EGL Resources Inc. have also
landed federal research leases in western Colorado. Oil Shale
Exploration Co. has been granted an experimental lease in eastern
Chevron spokesman Leif Sollid said the company is in the early
stage of research and isn't encouraging the establishment of a
commercial oil shale leasing program. He said Chevron is working with
groups and communities to address environmental concerns.
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