RBC I BLM is accepting public comment on its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for oil shale development in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, including the Piceance Basin. I would like to offer the following observations, based on review of the available research. BLM and the communities in northwest Colorado must address a number of concerns regarding the feasibility of oil shale as an energy source and the impacts of oil shale development on water resources, community social and economic structure, air and water quality, and wildlife habitat.
“Oil” shale is not oil. It is kerogen, a wax, locked tightly in shale rock (Youngquist, 1998). To extract and convert kerogen into usable liquid fuels requires considerable investment of energy, water, and infrastructure to retort the source material. The EROI (energy return on investment) of oil shale is about 2:1, i.e. it takes about one unit of energy to produce 2 units of energy in the form of usable refined fuel (Cutler, 2010). This is about 10 times less efficient than standard crude oil production. Put in other terms, the estimated “1.5 trillion barrels of oil” in the Green River Formation would require 0.75 trillion barrels of oil for its extraction and processing. Just as in coal and conventional crude oil extraction, production costs will only increase as the more easily recoverable oil shale deposits are extracted and companies turn to deposits that are not so rich.
Oil shale extraction and processing requires enormous volumes of water. The industry estimates, at minimum, three barrels of water required for every barrel liquid fuel from oil shale (Bartis, 2005). BLM, RAND Corporation, and the Governmental Accountability Office estimate that commercial oil shale production could require up to 375,000 acre feet of water each year, one-and-a-half times more than Denver Water supplies each year to 1.3 million people (Western Resource Advocates, 2012). Based on ten-year averages, the consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin already exceeds the ten-year average supply (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2011a), and water requirements in the West, even excluding oil shale development, will increase as the population grows. Climate models project that the West will become drier over the next decades, and water shortages will become more severe (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2011b). Where will the oil shale industry get its water? From allotments now dedicated to agriculture? From municipalities?
Large-scale oil shale extraction produces 25 percent to 75 percent more greenhouse gases in the production phase than conventional crude oil production, not to mention the potential greenhouse forcing of carbon now locked underground in the shale, all of which will degrade the regional and global environment (Brandt, 2009). And oil shale extraction destroys wildlife habitat. BLM identified at least 735,000 acres of mule deer winter habitat, 650,000 acres of elk winter habitat, and 501,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat as at risk from oil shale development (BLM, 2008). How will BLM mitigate the effects of habitat destruction on resident deer and elk herds? On other native ecosystems? On the climate system?
And how will BLM mitigate the negative effects of oil shale development on recreation, tourism, and hunting, all of which are critical to the economy of the Western Slope? Hunting and fishing, alone, generate an estimated $1.8 billion annually in Colorado, and other wildlife tourism contributes an additional $1.2 billion annually (BBC Research, 2008a).
In some locations that are experiencing rapid growth of natural gas processing, levels of air pollutants, including ozone, nitrogen compounds, and particulates, already exceed health standards (EPA, 2007). Depending on the method of extraction (surface mining or in situ retort) and without strict regulation, oil shale processing will only add to that pollution. There are similar threats to ground and surface water resources. How will BLM and municipalities guarantee air and water quality in the face of ramped-up commercial oil shale production?
Finally, as in past hype-and-bust cycles with oil shale and as evidenced in the recent natural gas boom, communities will face considerable social and economic disruption, especially in northwest Colorado (Bartis, 2011). Costs for public services, including water, sanitation, fire protection, law enforcement, utilities, and medical services, exceed revenues during the “boom” years, compounded by the transient nature of the extraction industry work force (Club 20, 2007). Even after accounting for mitigation payments made to cities and counties, growth-related costs of oil shale commercialization could exceed energy revenues by $1.3 billion (BBC Research, 2008b). Long-term residents are then left holding the bill.
Yes, America needs long-term, sustainable energy security. Oil shale extraction has not demonstrated technical, economic, or environmental feasibility (Bartis, 2011). It is too costly in terms of water, social and economic impacts, and environmental degradation. The energy companies would serve us better by developing proven sustainable energy resources.
Bartis, James T. et al. 2005. Oil shale development in the United States: prospects and policy issues. Report prepared by the RAND Corporation for the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Bartis, James T, RAND Corporation. June 3, 2011. Testimony presented before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
BBC Research and Consulting. 2008a. The economic impacts of hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Colorado. Report prepared for Colorado Division of Wildlife. http://wildlife.state.co.us/About/Reports/EconomicImpacts/
BBC Research and Consulting. 2008b. Northwest Colorado socioeconomic analysis and forecasts, final report. Prepared by BBC Research and Consulting for Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado http://agnc.org/reports/08-socioeconomic/agnc_final_mail_report_4-07-08.pdf
Brandt, Adam R. 2009. Converting oil shale to liquid fuels with the Alberta Taciuk processor: energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Fuels 23: 6253-6258.
Club 20. 2008. Comments to BLM 2007.
Cutler, J Cleveland et al. 2010. An assessment of the energy return on investment (EROI) of oil shale. Report prepared for Western Resource Advocates. http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org/land/oseroi.php
Environmental Protection Agency. 2007. Comments in BLM 2007.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 2007. Oil Shale and tar sands draft programmatic environmental impact statement.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 2008. Oil shale and tar sands final programmatic environmental impact statement. http://ostseis.anl.gov/eis/guide/index.cfm.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. 2011a. Colorado River Basin water supply and demand interim report.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. 2011b. Basin report: Colorado River. Future changes in climate and hydrology.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2010. Energy-water nexus: a better and coordinated understanding of water resources could help mitigate the impacts of potential oil shale development. GAO-11-35. http://www.gao.gov/assets/320/311896.pdf
Youngquist, Walter. 1998. Shale oil – the elusive energy. Hubbert Center Newsletter 98/4. M. King Hubbert Center for petroleum supply studies. Colorado School of Mines. Golden, CO.
Western Resource Advocates. 2012. Oil shale 2050. http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org/oilshale2050/index.php