A report found that commercial oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado would jeopardize fish and wildlife.
DENVER – Commercial oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado would require large volumes of water, threatening Western water supplies and jeopardizing fish and wildlife, according to a report released Thursday by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.
According to the report, “Water Under Pressure: What Oil Shale Could Mean for Western Water, Fish and Wildlife,” a commercial oil shale industry would ultimately affect river flows and the habitat of native fish. Several important Western rivers – the Green, Colorado, White, Uintah and Duchesne – and the sportsmen who depend on them stand to see significant impacts from large-scale production. Whether it’s endangered and threatened species or the great trout fisheries beloved by anglers across the West, reduced stream flows will have negative repercussions for fish, sportsmen and the region’s outdoors-dependent economy.
An economically viable technology to turn kerogen – a precursor to oil – into a usable fuel is unproven, and the scope of the potential environmental impacts is unclear. But the Government Accountability Office estimates that industrial-scale oil shale production could require as much as 123 billion gallons of water – enough water for a city of more than 750,000 homes. Roads, new power plants and transmission lines would have to be built, causing significant land disturbances and further carving up wildlife habitat already pressured by oil and gas drilling.
The risk of water quality degradation from this intensive development is high and will require significant oversight, according to the report. Other potential risks include competition between current and new water users. The diversion of water from agriculture to industrial use could harm fisheries because between 10 and 40 percent of the water diverted for farms and ranches eventually flows back to the streams.
The 1922 compact that allocates water from the Colorado River among seven Western states means the impacts of commercial oil shale production would be felt beyond the immediate area.
“All Colorado River Basin water users together already use more water in an annual average year than the river produces. Predictions for the future show the imbalances between supplies and demands getting worse as the region’s population grows,” wrote Melinda Kassen, the report’s author and a water attorney and consultant.
“For a resource that lies in the midst of the semi-arid West, with sparse precipitation and few large rivers, it is not clear where the water would come from or how it would affect fish and wildlife,” said Brad Powell, senior policy director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. “With the region’s water supply already strained and facing continued population growth, finding another increment of water for oil shale, while protecting native and sport fisheries, may be an insurmountable challenge.”
Additional research will be needed to determine whether or not oil shale is economically and environmentally feasible.
“Oil shale is a high-risk development on our public lands, with the greatest risk to our limited water supplies and important habitats for fish and wildlife,” said Powell. “The cautious approach outlined in the BLM’s recent decision, which focuses research and development on less sensitive lands, is prudent and helps ensure that our precious waters and habitats in the West will not be impacted until we learn more about the viability of the commercial development of oil shale.”
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