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Study argues that oil-shale development could drain Colorado of its water

It's not often that the New York Times weighs in on Western water issues -- but that was the case with "De-Watering Wyoming," a recent editorial attacking a plan by developer Aaron Million to build a privately financed pipeline from Wyoming's Green River Basin to Denver and Colorado Springs. The Times declares that "there is nothing environmentally sound or sustainable about encouraging new development in an already overpopulated region with already inadequate water supplies" -- and according to a followup piece on "The Vine," The New Republic's environment and energy blog, the wet stuff could become even more scarce if Western Slope energy development takes off. "How Oil Shale Could Dry Up Colorado" references "Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado," a new study by Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based organization that describes itself as "a non-profit environmental law and policy organization." The 96-page effort asserts that oil-shale development "would require the use of large quantities of water -- perhaps as much as 3-4 barrels of water for each barrel of shale oil for direct use, plus additional water for indirect demands, such as electricity generation and an increased population. Given the magnitude of development the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) projects is one day feasible, as much as 378,000 acre-feet of water could be required annually to support oil shale development, more than the Denver Metro area uses each year."

As this passage suggests, the Western Resource Advocates crew isn't exactly pro-development when it comes to oil shale. Their conclusion:

Governmental officials at the local, state, and federal level continue to warn policy makers in Washington, D.C. that the knowledge base is simply not there to make informed decisions. By gambling on oil shale and failing, the state could once again fall victim to the boom and bust cycles that characterize fossil fuel development. Colorado cannot aff ord to again compromise its financial well being, but that is what oil shale proponents are asking us to do.

WRA opposes development of oil shale resources in the West unless and until industry and government demonstrate that proven technologies can develop oil shale without unacceptable environmental, climate, economic, or social costs. The industry has barely begun to address that challenge.

At this point, Western Resource Advocates' concerns are mostly academic. After all, given current oil prices, companies have little incentive to ramp up oil-shale development. But the days of $4-per-gallon gas haven't faded into the mists of memory just yet -- and if they return, this issue will move to the front burner again.

To read the entire report, click here.

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