One of the many dirty little secrets about oil shale is that it will take huge amounts of energy to turn rock into a product we can put in our cars and trucks. That’s because the currently proposed technology for producing oil shale involves using what amounts to glorified curling irons underground, heating them up to hundreds of degrees and melting the "kerogen" into something that can be sucked out of the ground and could be refined into a useable product.
To heat all those curling irons could require 10 or more new coal-fired power plants, making oil shale one of the dirtiest source of energy per unit in terms of greenhouse gases. This production process would also be incredibly thirsty – producing one barrel of fuel from shale may require 3 or more barrels of water.
According to a March news report, a recent study indicates oil companies have "more than 200 water rights held by six different energy companies [and two water districts] with the potential to divert 7.2 million acre-feet and store up to 2 million acre-feet of Western Slope water."
That’s a LOT of water. By contrast, Denver Water needs less than 300,000 acre-feet of water to meet the demands of the 1.4 million people in its service area. OK, so the oil companies and those who may supply them apparently have rights with the potential to divert just 24 times as much water as Denver uses. (The oil companies may never use all the water they have rights to, but even if they use just a tenth of it ….)
And the coal-fired power plants to heat the rock will be controversial because of their emissions – not just CO2 but mercury and other poisons.
How to avoid the coal-oil shale connection, and maybe reduce some of the water demand? One man has a modest proposal. Aaron Diaz, the executive director of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado – an association representing five counties including those where oil shale deposits are found – told a gathering of business people recently:
"Now this is just me talking, but with all the advances they’ve made with nuclear energy, why would it be such a big deal to have a nuclear reactor, maybe more than one, on site" in western Colorado to produce electricity to heat shale rock underground?
Well, maybe since we’ll be dewatering rivers, drying out habitat, and turning the largely rural West Slope into a spider web of industrial facilities for Shell and its fellow oil shale producers, it won’t be such a big deal.
Then again, maybe someone will care about the place, wonder where the nuke waste will go, worry about where the uranium will have to be mined (guess where? Western Colorado), and raise a ruckus. Those of us on the Front Range living downwind of the reactors may care, too.