A strange war is breaking out in Colorado and its neighbourhoods in the US. While one section is pushing for shale-plumbing to extract oil, another section is warning the technology is unproven, polluting and, crucially, could eat up the much-needed water.
The Rocky Mountains in western North America is estimated to contain an estimated 800 billion barrels - about three times the reserves of Saudi Arabia. The underground sedimentary rocks remained a no-go area thus far for various reasons. But trust the Bush administration not to miss the slightest opportunity to push the interests of the corporate oligarchies.
On Oct. 31, the US Congress allowed a moratorium on oil shale leasing to expire. Immediately the Bush administration sprang to action and finalized leasing rules, opening two million acres of federal land to exploration.
Oil companies say that at a time of increasing foreign oil dependence, it would be unconscionable to forgo exploiting oil shale's potential.
"Considering the magnitude of this resource - it is so huge relative to other hydrocarbon resources around the world - it merits taking a look at trying any method we can, safely and responsibly, to get at it," said Tracy C. Boyd, communications and sustainability manager for Shell Oil Co.
But then extracting oil from rocky seams of underground shale is not only expensive, but also requires massive amounts of water, a precious resource crucial to continued development in the nation's fastest-growing region, it is pointed out.
Oil shale companies acknowledge that the technology required to superheat shale to extract oil is unproven. They also acknowledge that they are uncertain how much water would be needed in the process, although some experts calculate it would take 10 barrels of water to get one barrel of oil from shale.
Officials in the upper Rockies are raising alarm about the cumulative effect of energy projects on the region's water supplies, which ultimately feed Southern California reservoirs via the Colorado River.
"There are estimates that oil shale could use all of the remaining water in upper Colorado River Basin," said Susan Daggett, a commissioner on the Denver Water Board. "That essentially pits oil shale against people's needs."
But even with the precipitous drop in oil prices and the staggering start-up costs and risks associated with oil shale exploration, oil companies are rushing ahead.
"As long as we continue to be a nation that is hooked on liquid fuel," said Boyd, "we need to look at anything we can do to tap the sources of energy in this country."
Prospectors have known about the oil shale deposits in the Rockies for more than a century, but the technology to extract it has remained imperfect, expensive and polluting.
A variety of experimental methods have been developed. Although details are closely held, the broad outlines are similar.
Shell has the most mature technology, which it has been experimenting with at its Mahogany test site, near Rifle, Colo. Tucked into a rolling landscape of empty range land, the company has sunk heaters half a mile into oil shale seams and subjected the rock to 700-degree temperatures. Over weeks or even months, a liquid known as kerogen is produced, which can be refined into diesel and jet fuel.
To prevent the brewing hydrocarbons from spoiling groundwater, the heated rock core is surrounded by 20-to-30-foot-thick impermeable ice walls, frozen by electric refrigeration units.
Other companies' methods are more akin to open pit mining, in which millions of tons of rock are excavated and then fed into a massive above-ground cooker.
All of the processes require prodigious amounts of water, either for the electrical plants needed for heating and freezing or for the web of industrial facilities needed to extract the oil.
And the push for oil shale development comes at a time when conventional energy companies are being blamed for squandering and fouling water across the West. Benzene and other dangerous chemicals have been discovered in the wells. Ranchers in the region say their crops and livestock suffer as oil and gas production drains underground aquifers. Sportsmen complain that rivers and streams are being compromised by the energy industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in official comments to the Bureau of Land Management, expressed concerns about the possibility that oil shale production would deposit "salts, selenium, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in groundwater."
Craig Thompson found many of the same compounds when he studied groundwater pollution from an abandoned oil shale project in western Wyoming that began during the last oil shale boom, in the 1970s. Despite 30 years of cleanup efforts, he said, the aquifer is still not free of chemicals.
"Development of oil shale is a groundwater nightmare," said Thompson, a chemist. "Oil shale serves as the floor for the aquifer. When you heat up the aquifer, it dissolves nasty stuff like fluoride and arsenic and selenium and cyanide . . . the list goes on."
Even some Governors are suggesting the pace of development be slowed down lest the ecological balance was devastated.
For now, though, the oil companies appear to have the upper hand.
Indeed new regulations allow oil shale operators to pay unusually low royalty rates and the industry was included in the $700-billion government bailout package with investment and tax incentives to help oil shale producers build refineries and other expensive infrastructure.
But that might change with President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a former water lawyer, to head the Department of Interior, Julie Cart writes in Los Angeles Times.
Salazar, a Democrat, has criticized the breakneck speed at which oil shale efforts are advancing.
"Over and over again the administration has admitted that it has no idea how much of Colorado's water supply would be required to develop oil shale on a commercial scale, no idea where the power would come from and no idea whether the technology is even viable," Salazar said last month.