Water Under Pressure

What Oil Shale Could Mean for Western Water, Fish and Wildlife

11-29-2012 // Melinda Kassen, J.D., WaterJamin Legal & Policy
Water Under Pressure: What Oil Shale Could Mean for Western Water, Fish and Wildlife

For more than a century, efforts to wring oil out of rock formations in the Rocky Mountain West have waxed and waned. The deposits underlying northwestern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah have been portrayed as ``the Saudi Arabia’’ of oil shale, a vast source of domestic energy that would cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, create many jobs and produce millions of dollars of revenue for state and local governments.

Download the full report: Water Under Pressure (pdf)

That same area, the 16,000-square-mile Green River Formation, is home to some of the nation’s most valuable fish and wildlife habitat. Colorado’s Piceance Basin boasts North America’s largest migratory mule deer herd and some of the country’s largest elk herds. The huge tracts of public land also support greater sage-grouse, Colorado River cutthroat trout, black bear, bald eagles and mountain lions. Hunting, fishing, other wildlife-based activities and outdoor recreation are cornerstones of the regional economy and integral to the area’s lifestyle, heritage and identity.

Coursing through the wildlife habitat, ranches, fruit orchards and communities is the water that allows the people, the wildlife and the commerce all to thrive in the semi-arid climate. The rivers, fed by mountain snow and beloved by anglers, include the Green, the White, Uintah, Lake Fork, Strawberry and Duchesne. They include Utah’s top two fishing destinations, the renowned Green River gorge and Strawberry Reservoir, as well as hundreds of miles of headwaters trout and larger reaches with fat rainbows and browns.

An oil shale test site on private land in northwest Colorado

This report explores how large-scale commercial oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado could affect the region’s water supply and quality and what that might mean for fish, wildlife and communities. After more than 100 years of trying, we are still several years away from an economically viable oil shale industry. The technology is unproven and the potential environmental impacts are unknown. Even conservative estimates indicate the volume of water needed to transform kerogen – a precursor to oil – into a usable fuel could be huge. 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 the fish that live in the local streams. With the region already straining its water supply and facing continued population growth, finding another increment of water for oil shale, while protecting native and sport fisheries, may be an insurmountable challenge.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently proposing a cautious approach to oil shale development. The BLM has proposed keeping development off sensitive wildlife habitat, limiting new public leases to research and demonstration projects and moving ahead with commercial leases only after the pilot projects produce results. This approach is a prudent way to test oil shale potential and limit the risk to the regions water supplies.

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