Western Water Supply at Risk from Dual Impacts of Oil Shale Development and Climate Change

Cities & farms from Wyoming to Southern California could face water shortages due to oil shale development in the Colorado River Basin and a warming climate

San Francisco, CA (August 18, 2011) – Thirty million people from Wyoming to Southern California who depend on the Colorado River as a major source of water supply, including farmers who produce 15 percent of our nation’s crops, could face unprecedented water shortages if oil shale development increases in the Colorado River Basin alongside unchecked climate change, according to a new report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

“The Colorado River – a critical source of water supply for millions of people – has become a house of cards as water use in recent years has exceeded what the basin provides,” said Monty Schmitt, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If oil shale development moves forward, it will compete with farms and cities in the West for limited water supplies that will become scarcer because of climate change. The time is now for the Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado River Basin states to tackle this challenge head on, through effective planning, water smart energy policies and dramatic investments in water use efficiency – the reliable water supply of the future.”

NRDC’s report, Between a Rock and a Dry Place: The Water Supply Impacts of Oil Shale Development and Climate Change on the Colorado River Basin Water Supply, explores how oil shale development would exacerbate the looming water crisis for states in the Colorado River Basin – Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. In conjunction with climate change, which is likely to reduce Colorado River Basin’s water supply by 9 to 25 percent by 2050, new oil shale development would further strain future supplies that already are under pressure from current water uses and ongoing growth in urban areas.

Oil shale is found largely in the arid northwestern region of Colorado and in Utah. Producing oil from this rock requires an estimated 3 to 5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. A new oil shale industry producing 1.55 million barrels of oil a day would require a projected 360,000 acre-feet of water a year – the equivalent to one and a half times the city of Denver’s annual water use. This is a “mid-range” estimate of potential water use by oil shale development; high-end estimates of oil shale development could require more than a million acre-feet of water – more than four times Denver’s annual water use.

Agriculture could be most severely affected by future oil shale development. More than half of the water flowing in the Colorado River and its tributaries is used for irrigation. In Colorado, energy companies own senior water rights that could significantly reduce the water available for that state’s agricultural production if oil shale development moves forward. These senior rights would enable energy companies to divert billions of gallons of water from rivers in western Colorado for production of oil shale; much of that water is expected to come initially from agricultural water users. However, the potential impacts could reach other states and Western cities as well.

Agricultural water users today can reduce water consumption during droughts by increasing irrigation efficiency, changing crops or irrigating fewer acres. By contrast, industrial oil shale use could be inflexible in drought years. This inflexible oil shale demand could reduce the existing potential for urban areas to purchase water from agricultural users, increasing the challenge of meeting the water needs of cities during dry periods. Turning flexible agricultural water use into inflexible industrial use could increase basinwide conflicts by reducing water supply to lower basin states, particularly Arizona, making it more difficult to develop a basinwide strategy to live within the long-term supply provided by the Colorado River.

Oil shale processing is also known to significantly degrade both surface and ground water quality. Oil shale tailings and processing waste are known sources of toxic pollutants. For instance, underground oil shale processing that applies heat to oil shale deposits to extract liquefied oil, could become a cause of groundwater contamination. The potential for contamination has been shown by decades of pollution caused by a relatively small amount of spent shale waste at Anvil Points in Colorado.

Finally, the report reveals that oil shale development would significantly contribute to climate change. Oil shale production and refining results in appreciably greater greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil fuels. Well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emission estimates for oil shale show it to have 23 to 73 percent greater emissions in comparison to diesel.

The report proposes key recommendations that NRDC advocates to ensure California, Colorado and the rest of the West have reliable sources of water:

Develop a Comprehensive Colorado River Basin Plan

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently preparing a Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. That study should incorporate the potential state and basin-wide impacts of oil shale development and identify management options to meet future water needs.

Develop State Water Management Plans

Basin states individually and together should develop comprehensive water management plans that take into account current and likely future Basin yield, protection of listed species, climate change, future demand, and opportunities to promote local, state and regional conservation and water use efficiency.

Reconsider Oil Shale Development

Based on current information and existing technologies, proceeding with oil shale development would be inadvisable given significant impacts to water resources and the environment, including increased greenhouse gas emissions. Any further exploration should begin with an analysis of potential impacts to water users, groundwater, and sensitive protected species.

Develop Climate Change Adaptation and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Efforts

Colorado River Basin states should take immediate steps to implement a comprehensive regional greenhouse gas reduction effort, including more energy-efficient construction standards, smart growth planning to reduce vehicle miles travelled, and increased use of clean sources of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal.

Read more about oil shale and Western water solutions from our water and lands experts:

Bobby McEnaney, public lands analyst: http://bit.ly/qLhAhW

Barry Nelson, senior Western water policy analyst: http://bit.ly/qj7SiS

Edward Osann, senior policy analyst: http://bit.ly/nr2izv