An environmental group focused on recreation says industrial-scale development of oil shale is harmful to rivers and could require billions gallons of water annually, significantly more than what is needed for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale oil.

Oil shale — which is often confused with “shale oil” — is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds. While shale oil can be produced in a similar method to shale gas, oil shale development requires large amounts of heat and pressure to separate the kerogen from the rock. Ultimately the process can yield jet and diesel fuel, kerosene and other products.

According to a 13-page report released Nov. 15 by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development (SRDC), oil shale development could threaten river flows, fish and wildlife habitat in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, especially in the Colorado, Duchesne, Green, Uintah and White river basins.

“After more than 100 years of trying, we are still several years away from an economically viable oil shale industry,” Melinda Kassen wrote in the report, “Water Under Pressure.” Kassen cites separate figures from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and its Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The USBR reported that oil shale development could require up to 120,000 acre-feet (39.1 billion gallons) of water every year by 2060, depending on demand. According to the GAO, recovering one barrel of oil from oil shale would require between one and 12 barrels of water, and between 22 and 56 gallons of water would equal one BTU produced by oil shale.

Kassen includes in her report that the GAO calculates that conventional natural gas development would require 1-3 gallons of water/BTU, while unconventional shale gas that uses fracking would require between 0.6 and 3.8 gallons of water/BTU.

Last August, more than 100 business, conservation and sporting groups sent letters of support to the BLM, which had proposed in February reducing the amount of land available for oil shale research and development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming (see NGI, Feb. 6).

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