One of the largest oil companies in the world has been forced in court to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about one of the key environmental impacts of developing oil shale in the arid West. Namely, it will consume an enormous amount of water in a region where drought and climate change are already stressing available water supplies.
Chevron USA, in legal filings in a case brought by the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, has admitted that to meet a goal of developing a half million barrels of oil from sedimentary rock in northwest Colorado it would need 120,000 acre feet of water a year. That’s enough to meet the needs of 1 million people per year.
Oil industry giants have often brushed off concerns about the water demands oil shale development would place on the Colorado River system, despite assessments by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Rand Corporation that it will be water-intensive. Oil shale is different from shale oil which is conventional oil produced from shale rock formations using standard drilling techniques. Oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, which can yield liquid hydrocarbons when the rock is heated to high temperatures.
Rob Harris, who led the Western Resource Advocates case against Chevron, said in a prepared statement:
Chevron is the first company in recent memory to admit what Western Resource Advocates, the BLM, the GAO and others have been saying — oil shale development would be a water game-changer in our water strained region. Time-and-again, companies have downplayed their water demands, yet this new evidence shows that large-scale development would compromise the Colorado River Basin, an overtaxed river system. The cat is out of the bag, and it is time for other companies to follow Chevron’s lead and disclose their full water demands. Communities, state agencies, and concerned citizens in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming need to have the facts in hand as they plan for the future in our water-scarce region.
Humans have been chasing the elusive dream of oil shale for a very long time, but the reality has always been disappointing. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson set aside nearly 45,000 acres of western land as the Naval Oil Shale Reserves as a potential source of oil for the military. A number of booms and busts followed, including the spectacular crash of Exxon’s Colony Project in western Colorado in 1980.
Nonetheless the dream has persisted, driven by estimates that the Green River Formation that includes parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — in particular the richest section known as the Piceance Basin in Colorado — could hold a trillion barrels or more of recoverable oil, many times the oil resources of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, the Bureau of Land Management has issued a half dozen research and development leases to federal land for small-scale testing of oil shale development.
One of those leases was held by Chevron, but two years ago the company announced it was ending its research in Colorado. However, Chevron, which along with other oil companies holds rights to divert and store large quantities of water in the Colorado River Basin, filed in 2013 to maintain its water rights in the region. That application was challenged by Western Resource Advocates, which argued that in abandoning its oil shale project Chevron no longer intended to put its water to “beneficial use” as required by Colorado water law.
Chevron and Western Resource Advocates reached a settlement agreement and filed it last week with the Colorado water court. Under the agreement Chevron is allowed to keep its water rights for six years and then must go back to court to keep them beyond that period. It also agreed to provide Western Resource Advocates with five documents that detail how much water it would need for oil shale development and how the water would be used.
That’s how the truth came out. “This legal case puts to bed the argument of whether current oil shale plans will use large quantities of water,” said David Abelson, a policy advisor to Western Resource Advocates.
“Now the debate for decision makers is whether allowing oil shale development to use enormous quantities of water in a strained Colorado River Basin is acceptable.”