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Drink? Or Drive?

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View Ted Zukoski's blog posts
12 May 2008, 2:50 PM

Drink? Or drive? That may sound like questions to ask a a prospective designated driver before a night on the town. It may soon be the stark choice faced by an entire region.

That's because Shell Oil is planning to build giant oil shale extraction plants in western Colorado. The dirty little secret of oil shale development is that it takes huge amounts of electricity to bake rocks to turn shale into oil. Huge amounts. So much that Shell may have to build ten or more new natural gas (or coal) fired power plants to assist in turning rock to oil.

And why, you ask, would we need to drill for natural gas or mine for coal to immediately turn around and burn the stuff to turn rock into oil? Because this project is not about any form of power-generating substance, but about the stuff we put in our tanks.  No one has developed a commercially viable all-electric car (yet). We are so desperate for petroleum to power vehicles that this tremendously energy intensive method for oil production may someday make economic sense.

But that's not all. Commercial oil shale will require hundreds of millions of gallons of water, a commodity so scarce in the arid West it has been the stuff of feuds since the early days of European settlement (and probably long before that). Shell has already started buying  water rights from ranches that will go dry so we can drive by I-70 to see them turn to dust. One study estimates turning oil shale into gasoline may require water that could fill the needs of a city the size of Denver or bigger.

The silver lining to this looming cloud is that Shell's oil and water play has raised hackles on both sides of the Continental Divide. Front Range water suppliers, which would love to have the West Slope's water to meet residential needs, and West Slope irrigators and guardians of the Colorado River's over-appropriated flows may join hands in a rare display of unity to protect the state's water supply from fueling Shell's oily dream. 

Or we may just love our cars so much, we'd rather drive than drink.

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