How much water, in the form of both absolute and conditional rights in the Colorado River basin, have companies such as Shell and Exxon claimed during recent years to support the so-far nonexistent shale oil industry?
According to a study by Western Resource Advocates, nearly 7.2 million acre feet.
That figure is incomprehensibly large. In fact, if all of those rights were perfected and developed, the industry would use all the water available for Colorado that currently flows down the river.
So long, Dillon reservoir! Good-bye, Homestake project! Au revoir, Windy Gap! All you folks in Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and similarly hapless Front Range cities had better start catching rainfall in barrels, because your taps are about to run dry!
And as for irrigated agriculture … dust bowl, here we come!
Shale oil is now, always has been and always will be a desert mirage. When petroleum sold for less than $1 a barrel back during the 1920s, shale oil promoters said that they were ready to start production-if the price would just go to $1.50!
That was 90 years ago – and shale oil has always been right on the verge of feasibility, at least according to generation after generation of eager promoters.
Here’s the bad news – or, depending upon your prejudices, the good news.
There will never be a self-sufficient shale oil industry. That’s because squeezing the liquid hydrocarbons out of the rock requires substantially more energy than the hydrocarbons yield, regardless of process. Every such process (including the flavor of the decade, in situ processing) requires enormous inputs of energy, water and industrial infrastructure. Extracting shale oil will only be feasible when all other sources of liquid hydrocarbons are exhausted, and we still need, for example, aviation fuel. Don’t hold your breath – that might take a couple of centuries.
The folks that run Exxon & Shell know perfectly well that shale oil isn’t competitive with conventional sources, so why do they bother?
They’re no fools – they’re just waiting for another Middle Eastern crisis, another time when the country embraces energy self-sufficiency … and some nice, fat government subsidies (excuse me, I mean incentives!) to jump-start the business. And if it doesn’t work, and if the government ends up pumping tens of billions of dollars into economically/environmentally ruinous projects, no biggie!
The oil companies will tip-toe off, and leave us with a ruined landscape, a failed industry and a big mess to clean up.
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen. But during a bad economy, politicians are ready to throw taxpayer money anything and anybody that promises jobs … desert mirage or not.
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