Taming the Yampa

Posted in Energy, Society at 10:54 by RjZ

It was hard to find a place to ride a road bike in north eastern Colorado because it’s hard to find much of anything. This part of the western United States is not densely populated. Along the highway passing through it, there aren’t many places to stop. Many people do come here, however, and most of the hotels in Vernal, just over the border in Utah, are booked up. Is it because spring is the perfect season to visit Dinosaur National Monument? Actually, it’s the booming oil and gas industry.

Back in the day, this part of the world was densely populated…with dinosaurs. Today, their compressed bodies pressed over millennia into layers of mud is something we can use to motor our cars right past them on our drive from Denver to Salt Lake City; it’s oil shale.

This mostly untouched wilderness is home to something else very rare, however: the Yampa river. The Yampa is one of the very few wild rivers still left in North America. Today, however, after decades of buying up water rights in Colorado, the Shell Oil company has put forward a proposal to divert a significant amount of the Yampa into a reservoir that would be used to pump oil out of the shale below.

According to Shell, the reserves underneath the Dinosaur region of north western Colorado might rival the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Tapping this resource could lead to much needed energy independence from unsavory middle eastern dictatorships. Modern mining and drilling operations result in vastly diminished impact on the environment than they used to. As bumper stickers in mining regions remind us, “if it doesn’t grow, it’s mined.” It’s clear that a categorical refusal to support such activities is untenable.

The question, for me, comes down to which is the more precious resource? Water or oil? I drive a car, and I am not planning to give that up any time soon, but at the end of the day, can it really be argued that oil is more precious than water? Scarcity of water is painfully apparent in Colorado where water rights are a constant political companion and every day citizens are asked regularly asked to reduce water consumption. The earth may be covered with water over the majority of its surface, but the clean kind we can drink and water our vegetables with is like a cool glass of water spilled in the ocean.

We use water in a variety of industrial processes. Releasing oil from shale would be yet another one. Yet it takes about three barrels of water for a single barrel of oil. What will we use all the energy in the oil for? Will we put in trucks to carry bottled water to our super markets? Will we pour it into water treatment plants to create clean drinking water? Will we power industrial desalinization to make ocean water clean enough to drink? In the end, it will be a losing proposition.

And how will any of this help the rare fish and plants living along one of the last wild rivers?

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