Over the past year, Dr. Jeremy Boak, Director of the industry-funded Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, has stated that commercial oil shale extraction would use one to three barrels of water per barrel of oil shale produced.

In situ extraction, source: California Department of Transportation.

In situ extraction. Source: California Department of Transportation.

However, the independent, non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that commercial oil shale production could take five barrels of water per barrel of oil shale produced – especially for in situ technologies being tested in Colorado which melt the rock thousands of feet below ground requiring lots of energy and water for extraction. In more illustrative terms, GAO projected that large-scale oil shale development could require as much as 123 billion gallons of water, or 140 percent the amount that Denver Water provides annually.

Boak has been a vocal critic of the five barrel estimate, but at a Denver City Council committee meeting last month, he conceded that estimates of oil shale requiring as much as five barrels of water for each barrel of oil shale produced are credible. In the meeting, Boak said:

“…There is no credible analysis out there that actually says anything greater than, than, than three actually, five [barrels] at the outside.” [Emphasis added]

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So while he dismissed concerns over western water supplies, at the same he actually affirmed these same concerns.

This isn’t the first time that Dr. Boak, who at heart appears to be an academic, has slipped-up and conceded flaws in the rhetoric of oil shale boosters. In 2011, when asked about Rep. Lamborn’s oil shale boondoggle bill (H.R. 3408), Dr. Boak said (subscription):

“It isn’t obvious to me yet that we need to be putting a bunch of commercial leases out there because no one has a commercial process yet. And [industry] admits that. I don’t see anybody eager to go out and lease land now when they’re still running experiments.”

Let us be clear, even if we accept Dr. Boak’s assertion that oil shale development would require a 3-to-1 ratio of water to barrel of oil produced, that too would have considerable impacts to western water supplies requiring 69 billion gallons of water, or 48 percent the amount that Denver Water provides annually.

Colorado and the West are grappling with drought, historic wildfires and growing water demand. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed meeting water demand by piping water from the Missouri River across Kansas to Denver.

Water providers, local governments, ranchers, sportsmen, and residents have all voiced concerns over how much water large-scale oil shale production would require. While no one is sure of just how much water commercial oil shale would require, many experts believe that it would be a lot.

Given that water is a critical, if not the most critical, resource in the West, we can’t afford to gamble it away on oil shale speculation.