WATER LINES: Shell withdrawal from Colo. oil shale R&D may reduce projections of water use
Late in the day on Sept. 24, word filtered out via social media and the “breaking news” section of the Grand Junction Sentinel website that Shell has decided to shut down its oil shale research and development sites in northwestern Colorado’s Rio Blanco County. Last year, Chevron also decided to stop work on its Colorado oil shale research projects.
Once again, the ephemeral prospect of a booming oil shale industry in western Colorado appeared to dim. Others can debate whether this is a positive or negative development. This column will focus on what Shell’s departure from the local oil shale scene may mean for the region’s water future.
In 2008, the Colorado and Yampa-White Basin Roundtables, which are groups of stakeholders responsible for “bottom-up” regional water planning, commissioned a study on future water needs for energy development. The initial phase of the study raised eyebrows with the estimate that if oil shale really took off, the industry could be using nearly 380,000 acre feet of water/year by the 2040s, largely due to water use by power plants needed to provide the energy to extract oil from shale. An acre foot is approximately enough water to supply 2-3 households for a year.
A later version of the roundtables’ study revised the oil shale water use projections down significantly, in part by changing assumptions about how the energy for the extraction process would be generated (with less thirsty natural gas-fired plants rather than coal-fired plants). This version settled on an estimate of 120,000 acre feet/year to supply a large-scale oil shale industry and concluded that it could be supplied mostly from the White River.
Although significantly lower than the earlier estimate, 120,000 acre feet/year is still much more than the water needs projected for other energy development sectors in the region, including natural gas development. Water use of that magnitude could impact the state’s ability to develop water from the Colorado River and its tributaries for other uses, including meeting the needs of our growing cities. Current uses, such as irrigated agriculture, could also be impacted if senior water rights were applied to meeting the industry’s needs.
So … does Shell’s withdrawal from oil shale research in the region mean water planners no longer need to account for this potentially large increase in the use of our region’s water? Not necessarily, since several other companies are still actively working on their oil shale research and development projects.
However, since the water use estimates used in the roundtables’ studies were based largely on the technologies Shell was testing, the numbers will certainly need to be reconsidered, and the time horizon may be pushed back even further.
Water Lines is a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.
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