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Energy projects threaten Utah's water resources

May 20, 2010
by Harold Shepherd

With Shell Oil's recent withdrawal of a water right permit application to divert 375 cubic feet per second of water from the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, one would get the impression that the bubble has finally burst on mass scale, traditional energy development in the West and that the oil industry has finally come to terms with the impact of traditional energy development on rapidly diminishing water resources.

Not so in Utah.

While recently briefing the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, Dr. Laura Nelson, vice president of the Salt Lake City-based Ecoshale (Red Leaf Resources), for example, proclaimed that the company just completed a pilot project that produced a high-quality oil-shale product and, "we did so working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to make an environmentally sensitive product." Similarly, the National Commission on Energy Policy — a bipartisan group of energy experts — recently stated that climate change legislation currently being considered by Congress must also spur more domestic energy production by extending the production tax credit for new reactors through 2025 and expanding the renewable energy standard to include nuclear.

Such calls for an oil shale and nuclear revival have led to rampant mineral and water speculation in and around Utah and an industry that is practically purring about the shale and uranium rich iconic mountain and canyon country. The rush to develop such resources, however, has caused concern. Audrey Graham, a member of the Grand County Council, states, "For me personally, Utah's rush to use its nonrenewable energy resources, including scarce water supplies, is shortsighted unless there is an overall articulated energy plan for the nation. I can perhaps swallow some carefully planned development of these resources if they are a stop-gap measure until sustainable renewable resources can be achieved."

Graham is in a minority among political leaders in Utah, however, most of whom have proclaimed that Utah is "open for business!" Indeed, a few even want a piece of the action. Aaron Tilton, the CEO for Blue Castle Holdings, the owner of a proposed nuclear power plant to be located near the town of Green River, also sat on the state Legislature while he worked on a lucrative deal with the Kane County Water Conservancy District to lease water to the plant for the power generating process. Tilton's counterpart at the county level is another state representative and ardent proponent of nuclear power development, Mike Noel, who is also the water district's administrator.

A nuclear power plant in Green River could also be the epicenter of any future oil shale boom and the corresponding impacts on water availability in the state.

Many water experts speculate that the already over-appropriated river systems in Utah simply cannot accommodate such development. A case in point is the Green River nuclear plant, which would have access to a 1964 Kane County water right for 29,600 acre-feet per year. If the river drops, the plant would have rights to what remains, placing it ahead of many other water right holders in southern Utah. In addition, adding water diversions for energy development could cause state water courts to cut off existing water users once Utah exceeds its allocation under the Colorado River Compact.

Another Grand County Council member, Chris Baird, addressed the consequences of inserting energy development into the water use equation: "I can't speak for the Grand County Council," he said, "but I personally believe that oil shale and tar sands projects in Utah are highly speculative in a myriad of ways. It would be wise for the state of Utah to consider this in appropriating water rights to the most beneficial use. The cost-benefit scenario for such projects are also highly questionable, and that isn't even considering the environmental costs."

The question for Utahns is, are we paying attention?

Harold Shepherd is the executive director of Red Rock Forests.

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