Oil and water may not mix, but getting one requires the other.
Utah is located in an arid desert environment. There's also oodles of oil in the eastern part of the state in shale and tar sands. To get the oil out, it will require using a lot of water.
How much water it will take depends on whom you ask, what technology is being used and how that technology advances in the years leading up to commercial-scale production in parts of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
At stake in the shale game is about 800 billion barrels of "recoverable" oil in a formation that spans three states. One recent estimate put the possible start of commercial oil production from shale and sands as soon as 2015. But getting that much oil out of the tri-state Green River formation may require up to 425,000 acre-feet of water per year.
Funded to the tune of up to $250 million by GE Energy Financial Services, a Midway-based company called 212 Resources claims it can "dramatically" reduce the amount of water that a shale or sands operation will need with a
technology 212 says it has already proven in commercial natural gas fields. The company's process of recycling dirty water, using a mobile "pod" at the drilling or mining site, is described by 212's Robert Waits as a "viable, large-scale solution to the 'water issue."'
Any number of companies could end up using 212's technology, which Waits said was pitched recently in Alberta, home to rich supplies of oil sands. It's also being used in Wyoming's natural gas fields.
"We wanted to prove ourselves in gas fields," Waits said. "We've set about doing a good job on that."
Waits said one of his company's mobile pods can be built in about six months and that it requires a generator, with some emissions if the site is remote or doesn't have easy access to an electric grid. Beyond that, he added, there are no emissions from 212's "closed-loop" process of heating used water, which creates distilled water and a salty solid waste that Waits said can be injected deep underground and safely away from aquifers. Their process also produces a petroleum product that 212 turns around and sells.
"We're substantially reducing anything that has to be disposed of," Waits said, noting that their methods also greatly reduce the need for water trucks, thereby reducing tailpipe emissions and airborne particulates from dust on dirt roads.
Not everyone is convinced that oil shale can be mined without using lots of water, however.
"Do we have a technology that exists today that does not require a lot of water?" asked Lawson LeGate, senior regional representative of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter. He hasn't seen it, yet.
Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates' Peter Rossman is waiting for science and technology to prove and not just in a laboratory that large-scale shale oil operations will not siphon the area dry or contaminate groundwater sources.
"From all appearances right now it really appears it's going to take an enormous amount of water," Rossman said. "It's really not looking like our best energy option."
Rossman said politicians are rushing to let private industry secure leases for, in particular, shale development on public lands because it makes them look good as they tout energy independence and lower gas prices as justification for their actions. Rossman goes so far as to warn about an "industrialization" of the American West.
"That's basically what's going to be required to get significant amounts of energy out of the ground," he said on the phone.
Rossman and LeGate said if the water-friendly technology does exist for getting oil from shale, then it ought to be subject to rigorous testing to show it can work.
"To base our future on unproven technologies is not a wise choice," LeGate said.
Two analyses earlier this year of an environmental impact statement produced by the Bureau of Land Management say the BLM findings need a lot more research into shale and sands development's impact on water. The analyses by Lytle Water Solutions and Watershed Environmental looked at the impact if, as proposed, 1.9 million acres of public lands were leased for shale operations and 431,000 acres were made available for sands leasing.
First, however, oil interests will need to get permits through the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, which spokesman Jim Springer said will consult with its own hydrologists to determine an operation's impact on the local watershed. He said permit applicants will also need to check in with state water regulators to examine water rights issues. Right now, Springer noted, there is no point of reference to determine what the overall impact on Utah's water resources will be.
In his analysis of the BLM's 2007 Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Bruce Lytle said evaluating water supplies should be a critical part of the process before leases on public lands are granted for shale development.
"There remains great uncertainty regarding impacts of commercial-scale oil shale development," Watershed Environmental's March, 2008, analysis reads. "More broadly, the affected natural resources water, air and land are under greater pressure today than they were 25 years ago, with expanding population increasing the demand for water and land even as predicted climate change threatens to reduce the quality of both."
Alabama-based Oil Shale Exploration Co. (OSEC) says it is "aggressively leading the charge" in Utah to mine, process and market millions of barrels of oil from leases it already has in northeastern Utah. At the same time OSEC says water is "as precious as gold in the West," and that its operations will use less than two barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced from shale."OSEC will be working with local, state and federal governments, along with other industrial users, to forecast needs in the Uinta Basin in order to develop long-term programs to assure adequate water supplies," OSEC officials state on the company's Web site.