“insufficient water to meet needs”, energy edition

“The Saudi Arabia of X” is a common new energy meme that has been applied, among many things, to the oil shales of the western United States. But its invocation requires some significant arm-waving over the question of water, as this report by Jeremy Miller points out:

But it is water – or more specifically, its scarcity – that is likely to be shale oil’s greatest stumbling block in the arid West.

The United States Geological Survey recently estimated that there may be as many as 1.525 trillion barrels of oil trapped in the rock of Colorado’s Piceance Basin, the region’s richest shale field. And a report released in March by the non-profit Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group based in Boulder, Colo., suggested that oil companies have acquired water rights at hundreds of locations in the upper Colorado River basin, which could be used for future oil shale production.

“There is this theoretical idea that if you could somehow extract all of the oil” from the Piceance Basin, said David Abelson, an author of the report, “you would have more oil than Saudi Arabia.”

The W.R.A. report, citing figures from the Bureau of Land Management and RAND Corporation, argued that increased water use for oil shale development could hamper urban growth in the Rocky Mountain Front Range, threaten agriculture and critical habitat for endangered fish and increase likelihood that Lower Basin states like Nevada, Arizona and California would issue a “call” — a legal decree that forces junior upstream water rights holders to reduce, or eliminate altogether, water use until senior downstream rights are met.

(Previous Inkstain coverage of energy-water issues)