Oil shale has been “The next big thing” in Colorado for over a hundred years now. Here’s an article exploring the water needs of oil shale development, from Judith Lewis Mernitc writing for the High Country News via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Click through and read the whole article, there is a lot of good detail there. Here’s an excerpt:
Trapped in fossil-fuel purgatory, oil shale has to be heated to super-high temperatures, a process called “retorting” that requires enormous amounts of water. No one can even say for sure how much, although some energy companies try.
Utah-based Red Leaf claims its technology needs only a tiny amount; other estimates say that full-scale development of oil shale in Colorado would require more water than all of Denver uses in a year.
“There’s been a great deal of speculation on water needs for oil shale, but it’s all based on unproven technology,” says Steven Hall, Colorado spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, which recently signed a lease with ExxonMobil for an experimental oil shale project in the Piceance Basin.
“I don’t think the technologies those (low) water-use estimates are based on are commercially or environmentally feasible,” Hall said.
In November, the BLM published a fresh analysis of oil shale development’s environmental impacts on Western public lands. Much of the analysis, which also looks at tar sands in Utah, is concerned with water — the lack of it in this arid region, the great need any energy-extraction technique has for it, and the vulnerability of freshwater aquifers to industrial contamination…
Lawmakers including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warn that the BLM’s parent, the U.S. Department of Interior, stands in the way of economic progress. But not even the oil producers have figured out how to get the water to the rock without incurring huge energy costs — costs that may not pencil out in the final analysis.
In other words, it may take more energy to get the water to the oil shale than anyone can actually extract from it…
This problem with the so-far embryonic industry is what regulators and industry experts call an “energy-water nexus” issue: Just as water needs energy to travel from source to tap, nearly every form of energy needs water throughout its lifecycle, from mining to generation to reclamation.