Water Under Pressure
What Oil Shale Could Mean for Western Water, Fish and Wildlife
Melinda Kassen, J.D., WaterJamin Legal & Policy
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.
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.