It seems a day does not go by we don't hear something on the radio or read an ad in a paper about the importance of developing oil shale. Proponents of oil shale see it as another means to help the United States achieve energy independence, a very worthy cause. However, how much of this rhetoric is just good politics in these days of $4 a gallon gasoline, and how much of this is actually good, well-thought-out policy?
A very serious concern of mine relates to the impact of oil shale on our state's limited water resources. In case anyone forgot, we do live in the second driest state in the country, averaging only 12 inches of precipitation annually. More importantly, the area where most of Utah's oil shale is located averages even less. Utah has limited water resources, which are already heavily stressed and will be even more so as our population doubles in the next 40 years.
The oil shale in Utah is located near the Green and White rivers, major tributaries of the Colorado River. The Colorado River is one of the most heavily used and managed water systems in the United States. Millions upon millions of people all over the southwestern United States rely on water from this system for everything from growing crops to meeting drinking water needs.
The Colorado River Compact guides how this river system is managed. Recently, after years of debate, the compact was amended in order to determine how the water would be allocated in times of a drought. This was done because there simply is not as much water in the system now as there was when the compact was originally created.
Let's see how this water scarcity relates to oil shale.
Oil shale can be converted to a liquid by one of two processes: either above ground or in-situ. The method in Canada is above ground. This process requires an astounding five barrels of water to create one barrel of oil. The other process, in-situ, processes the shale in the ground. This process is still new, so the amount of water required for it has not yet been determined. In-situ has never been done on a large scale.
Regardless of which method is used, the fact remains that processing oil shale into oil requires an incredible amount of water. While it may be true that there is a huge quantity of oil shale in Utah, there simply is no way to meet the incredible water needs to produce oil from it. There are many unknowns when it comes to water and oil shale. How much water will it actually require? Where will that water come from? Does that water even exist? If processed in-situ, will the groundwater be polluted?
Utahns are incredibly aware and educated when it comes to water. They made it possible for people to settle in the dry western United States thanks to modern irrigation. Now, as we move forward into the future, let's continue to be forward-thinking and innovative and make sure we fully understand how the production of oil shale will impact our state's precious and limited water supplies.We can't simply jump on board the bandwagon and proclaim that we need to develop oil shale without understanding what that means to our limited and precious water resources.
Mark Danenhauer is the river solutions coordinator for the Utah Rivers Council.