Fossil Foolishness: Utah's Pursuit of Oil Shale and Tar Sands

09/07/2010 11:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a saying in the West: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over." This maxim could get put to the test as companies pursue development of tar sands and oil shale in Utah, the nation's second driest state.

With some companies seeking to develop tar sands, and other companies researching the feasibility of commercially developing oil shale, Utah finds itself at a crossroads regarding use of its diminishing water supplies and its work to formulate a 10-year strategic energy plan. How water is distributed among competing uses - municipal development, energy production, recreation, and agriculture, to name a few - will be pivotal to the long-term economic and environmental health of the state.

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has been working with private companies on developing oil shale technologies, has determined that oil shale and tar sands development would be water intensive. The BLM estimates that, each year, large scale development of oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming would require roughly 68% more water than the Denver metro area and its roughly 1.5 million people use annually. Tar sands' water requirements would add to that sum.

The development of these fuels would come at great expense to Utah: from water supplies, which are already stressed, to water quality, which is vital for the economic and environmental health of the state; from farmers, whose water developers would seek to take, to the recreation economy, which relies on Utah's rivers, lakes and streams. As every Utahn knows, water is the state's most precious natural resource, one that residents must use with wisdom and forethought in the coming years. Commercial development of tar sands and oil shale, should they ever prove viable, would require allocating huge quantities of water to mine, refine, and process liquid fuels from rock and bitumen.

What boosters in Utah and Congress play down is the stark truth that almost all of Utah's water is claimed and there is not enough unclaimed water to go around, especially if tar sands and oil shale were developed at the same time. Utah has a choice to make. It could use its precious and limited water supplies for oil shale and tar sands development, or it can save those supplies to ensure that there would be water for future population growth, for irrigated agriculture, for recreation and for the future.

There's another hidden cost to oil shale and tar sands. As Adam Brandt with Stanford University has documented, oil shale would contribute approximately 25-75% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuel. Tar sands are equally dirty.

A new report by Western Resource Advocates, "Fossil Foolishness: Utah's Pursuit of Oil Shale and Tar Sands," explores these issues. The report reaches a number of important conclusions:

1. Tar sands and oil shale production in Utah would not contribute significantly to domestic U.S. oil supply - but it would have significant negative impacts to Utah's air, water and communities.

2. Commercial scale development would require huge quantities of water in the country's second most arid state. This fact is particularly important as there is little remaining unclaimed water in the Colorado River Basin, and the state is projected to exceed its share of Colorado River water under the Colorado River Compact in approximately 2025.

3. Commercial development of tar sands and oil shale would adversely affect water quality as well as water supply.

4. Development of these dirty fuel deposits would harm Utah's recreation economy. Degraded water and air quality and damage to landscapes would adversely impact Utah's $7.1 billion recreation economy, which provides approximately 113,000 jobs.

5. Climate change is real, and development of carbon intensive oil shale and tar sands will only make it worse.

So, before we put down our whiskey glasses and fight over water allocations, we need to look to the future and make sure that the decisions we make today serve generations to come. With its ample natural resources, Utah can be a leader in developing energy sources that will power the state, our region and our country. That should be the State's focus - and it should leave yesterday's fuels in the ground.