U.S. Water News Online
MEEKER, Colo. -- No one has ever rowed a boat across
Stillwater Reservoir. Or caught a fish at Fourteenmile Reservoir. Or
stood on the beach of Roan Creek Reservoir.
These are all imaginary lakes. They exist only in the minds of oil
company executives and attorneys.
But the oil companies own legal rights to build and fill these
reservoirs, which would be in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. And
as the companies take another look at Colorado's oil-shale deposits,
which would require vast amounts of water to develop, they might make
those imaginary lakes a reality.
Their water rights are huge, and getting bigger. Shell has been
buying large water rights on the Western Slope for the last five
years and just completed a major purchase in July.
"I've seen estimates that oil shale, if it is developed, would
consume 100 percent of the remaining water in the Colorado River
system," said U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar.
Harris Sherman, director of the state's Department of Natural
Resources, has seen the draft of an upcoming federal study on oil
shale, although he can't divulge its details because of a
confidentiality agreement. But he let something slip to members of
the Water Conservation Board in Craig this summer.
"I assure you there will be numbers associated with water for
oil-shale development that will gain our attention," Sherman said.
But no one has an answer to the big question: How much water will
the oil industry take?
International oil companies own some of the largest private water
rights on the Western Slope. If they used all the rights they own,
they might force Colorado to violate the Colorado River Compact of
1922, and then water users around the state would have to cut back.
"The difficulty and the problem is everybody's playing their cards
pretty close to their vest. Or they don't have a good idea what their
water needs will be," said Dan Birch, who is leading a study into the
question for the local river basins.
"I think on the low end, we're talking about 10,000 acre-feet a
year. On the upper end, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of
acre-feet a year, maybe 500,000, which by all estimates is everything
Colorado has left to develop," Birch said.
Colorado uses about 2.1 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado
River Basin, which includes southwestern rivers like the Animas and
Dolores, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
On paper, Colorado gets 3.8 million acre-feet a year under the
1922 compact and subsequent agreements. But few water experts believe
Colorado will get anything close to that much, because of climate
change and natural dry cycles. Birch's boss at the river district,
Eric Kuhn, thinks Colorado already might be using all the water to
which it is legally entitled.
Birch thinks it will take a year to finish the study, which will
look at the water needs of many forms of energy, not just shale
Birch has a frustrating task. Most of the studies on oil shale and
water are at least 20 years old, and they are maddeningly vague.
A U.S. Bureau of Mines report from the late '70s said the industry
would need two to five barrels of water per barrel of oil. A 1981
blue-ribbon panel for then-Gov. Richard Lamm said the industry would
need anywhere from 81,000 acre feet to 868,000 acre feet, depending
on how much oil it was producing.
But both of those studies were done when oil companies planned to
build the world's largest strip mines to get the shale. Today's
"in-situ," or underground methods, might take less water. Three
companies -- Shell, Chevron and EGL -- have won federal leases to
demonstrate their in-situ methods on 160-acre parcels in Colorado.
The companies plan to melt the rocks 2,000 feet below the surface.
They would need water to process the shale oil in a plant that
resembles a refinery, to spray on the ground for dust control and, in
some methods, to wash the underground rock formations of leftover
Shell believes its whole process, from construction to processing
on the surface, would take two or three barrels of water per barrel
of oil produced, said company spokeswoman Jill Davis. But Shell's
prediction does not include water for the extra work force that would
move to area towns, she said.
And Shell does not yet know how much oil, if any, it expects to
produce and sell.
Chevron does not have an estimate on how much water its process
will use, said spokesman Dan Johnson.
Chevron owns the biggest water rights of the oil companies, but
Shell has been the most aggressive in snapping up new water for its
In 2002, it bought Exxon's old rights from a ranch in Northwest
Colorado. That purchase forms the core of Shell's future water
system. It includes three large reservoirs.
This year, Shell bought Piceance State Wildlife Area, which sits
on the creek bottom near its research project. The land came with
several small water rights, some of which are from the late 19th
century. In return, Shell gave the state land to expand a different
wildlife refuge plus $444,000 cash.
And in July, Shell closed the books on a purchase of land and
water rights west of Grand Junction.
Davis, the Shell spokeswoman, said she's not at liberty to say why
the company bought those water rights. It may or may not be for the
oil-shale project, she said.
But an oil-shale critic, Cathy Kay with the Western Colorado
Congress, said the land is next to a coal mine. Shell will need
electricity to run its oil-shale project, and Kay worries the area
could be used for a coal power plant.
Altogether, it's just too much water for an industry that hasn't
proven itself, Kay said.
"Surely, the lawmakers cannot allow one industry to chew up the
rest of the compact for something that's so elusive," she said.
Davis takes issue with environmental groups that criticize the oil
industry's water plans. "The whole implication is that the industry
is going to be so big and bad that it's going to dry up the rivers,"
In fact, the industry's size will be limited by the water supply,
the work force, air quality and the oil market, she said.
By 2009 or 2010, Shell will have to decide whether its technology
is ready to be used at a larger scale, Davis said. Johnson said his
company, Chevron, needs another three to seven years to work on its
research and development project.
The federal government will play a crucial role in oil shale.
Three companies have won federal research and development leases
on 160-acre tracts west of Meeker. As many as 23 companies might be
interested in oil-shale development, according to the state
Department of Natural Resources.
The federal government itself holds water rights for oil shale. It
has the right to use 49,000 acre-feet a year for the oil-shale
reserve it set aside in 1916. At least some of those rights, however,
are for national defense purposes and not for commercial oil-shale
development, said Roy Smith with the Bureau of Land Management.
The Department of Energy's 2004 Oil Shale Development Roadmap says
water availability might be a significant problem for a large shale
industry -- one that satisfied 10 percent to 20 percent of U.S. oil
"Alternate water sources, including interbasin transfers and new
gathering and storage projects, need to be identified," the report
It does not specify a source for the interbasin transfers, but
such a project would make history. The rivers surrounding the
Colorado Basin are small, and water has always been transferred out
of the Colorado to cities from Denver to Los Angeles.
Large volumes of water never have been imported into the Colorado
Even though the shale industry might not get going for 10 years,
water projects take 10 or 20 years to build. The critical time to
examine oil shale is now, said Birch, who is leading the energy and
"Who knows if it's going to happen? But it seems to me the prudent
thing to do is for state and local interests to do the planning right
now as if it's going to happen at some level," Birch said.
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