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It’s Official: Colorado Oil Shale Development Would Use Tons Of Water

Elderkin, R.L. Jr.
U.S. Geological Survey
Aerial view of the new town of Battlement Mesa under construction during the oil shale boom in Garfield County. August 27, 1981.

Energy development takes water, and in Colorado, water is a precious resource. That is why debate has raged for years over just how much water one type of energy development – oil shale – would use.

Now, environmentalists say they have forced one company, Chevron, to admit that developing oil shale in Western Colorado would use a whole lot of water.

In a challenge to the company's water rights in a Colorado water court, the group Western Resource Advocates pushed Chevron to admit it could demand as much as 120,000 acre-feet of water for a potential oil shale project. That's enough water to serve as much as a million people, or around 300,000 households a year, depending on average water use.

Before we get too far along and the conversation turns to fracking, there’s a distinction: Oil shale is not produced by fracking. It's confusing terminology, but the oil that comes out of shale formations by drilling wells and hydraulically fracturing them is called shale oil. That wording flip-flop means a world of difference. Oil shale is typically produced by strip mining oil-rich rocks and then processing them to get out the oil – a costly undertaking that can use a lot of water.

According to Western Resource Advocates, the companies holding water rights from the Colorado River have not been forthcoming about how much water this process would take.

"We've been getting mixed messages from the companies. They go to the water courts and renew these enormous water rights, and then they say in public that they won't need very much. Until this filing, Chevron was among those companies," said Rob Harris, a staff attorney with Western Resource Advocates.

Harris' group took Chevron to water court, where they had to say just how much water they needed – or risk losing their rights. When all was said and done, Chevron argued that it would need 120,000 acre-feet [.pdf] of water to meet its goal of producing 500,000 barrels of oil a day.

These numbers matter because water managers need to incorporate such potential uses into their statewide and regional planning for the future, said David Abelson, oil shale policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates.

As time goes on, planners have been lessening their assumption of how much water oil shale is likely to use, Abelson said.

"So this admission by Chevron necessitates revisiting those assumptions," he said.

A request for comment from Chevron was not answered by deadline. We will update with a response if we receive one.

Water An Issue Only If Development Actually Occurs

Credit Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Protection Agency
The Colony Plant was a shale oil development eventually terminated by Exxon in May 1982. This image of the site is from August 1973.

Of course, none of this actually matters unless Chevron, and the other companies holding oil shale leases, decide to develop the oil shale.

That seems pretty unlikely, said Douglas Kenney, director of the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center's Western Water Policy Program.

"The joke about oil shale is that oil shale is the next big thing and it always will be," said Kenney.

In the early 1980s, the promise of oil shale loomed large in Grand Junction, and new workers  poured into the city as Exxon spend millions developing the industry.

Then, May 2, 1982, a Sunday, Exxon shut its operation down. That day is now known as "Black Sunday," and Grand Junction's economy tanked. There were suicides, bank closures, and bankruptcies.

For this reason, most folks in Colorado are pretty skeptical when it comes to promises of oil shale. But in nearby Utah, regulators have given the go ahead to a small oil shale demonstration project.

That company, Red Leaf Resources, hopes to prove its technology can work on a large scale.

As long as other, cheaper sources of oil are available, though, it's hard to know whether oil shale will ever get off the ground.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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