GRAND JUNCTION " America's thirst for oil is threatening to add to the thirst for water in the West.
Meeting the nation's energy needs also is threatening water quality in the region, speakers said Friday at a seminar in Grand Junction on energy development's impacts on water. The seminar was organized by the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs.
It focused on possible oil shale development, which is considered to be an elephant in the room when it comes to planning for Colorado's future needs.
High oil prices and a diminishing global supply have renewed interest in the oil shale industry, which went bust in the early 1980s. If the industry took off, full production could reach 2.5 million barrels per day. Each barrel could require 1 to 3 barrels of water to produce.
If full production occurred, that would require additional withdrawals of water from the Colorado and other rivers in western Colorado, said Cathy Wilson, who has studied the oil shale industry's water needs for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Her study found that the White River in northwest Colorado might be able to support production of 500,000 barrels of oil per day, but only with creation of 16,000 acre feet of new water storage to provide backup during dry years.
She said it remains unclear how much water might be needed to do "in-situ" oil shale production. That process, which is under research by Shell, involves heating shale underground and pumping oil to the surface, rather than mining the shale and then heating it to produce oil.
Wilson's forecasts for water needs project that it would take 105 to 315 million gallons per day to produce 2.5 million barrels of oil per day from shale. However, an industry that size also would result in a regional population growth of 433,000 people, who would require another 58 million gallons per day.
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming used an annual average of 3.8 million acre feet of Colorado River water from 2001-2003. That's 70 percent of the water they're entitled to under an interstate compact governing use of the river by states including those in the dry Southwest.
Use by Colorado, Utah and Wyoming is projected to increase to 4.8 million acre feet, or 90 percent of that allocation, by 2020. A full-scale oil shale industry could increase that use by another 0.2 to 0.4 million acre feet.
Wilson added that the river's flows are likely to be impacted by drought and climate change.
John Sikora, a senior water resource engineer with URS Corp. in Glenwood Springs, predicted that a commercial oil shale industry would change existing water augmentation plans on the Colorado River and affect projects diverting water from the Western Slope to Front Range cities.
"We've got to think long-term for water planning and how this is going to affect Colorado water rights," he said.
He said energy companies wield "muscle" that results from having water rights and money, but it's important to strike a balance that meets other needs such as preserving agriculture and protecting endangered fish.
Tony Dammer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, said the government sees oil shale as a potential solution to the nation's energy security problem. The United States has about 1 trillion barrels of recoverable oil reserves, virtually all in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
In 2005, Congress directed the government to establish a task force to develop a program to pursue possible oil shale development. However, Dammer said such development would face major challenges of minimizing surface disturbance, dealing with water supply and disposal, and protecting air quality. A failure to be able to control carbon dioxide emissions alone could mean the oil shale development couldn't occur, he said.
Cathy Kay, with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said oil shale is a lower-quality fuel that doesn't seem worth the price of developing.
"Is it worth the massive impact that you're going to have on ecological systems, on ranching and on your limited water supply in the Colorado River?" she asked.
She also worried about water quality impacts from the region's natural gas development boom, including the amount of waterway sedimentation resulting from creation of well pads.
Steve Gunderson, director of the state's Water Quality Control Division, said his division has added staffing for purposes such as enforcement of stormwater runoff regulations that apply to natural gas development. But he said staffing is still lacking, and the state also lacks adequate water quality monitoring on the Colorado River so it can better gauge what impact the energy industry may be having.