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Oil Shale Forces Us to Decide Our Real Water Priorities

Oil shale is once again in the news with Chevron’s recent admission in
a court filing that development activities would require substantial
quantities of water. As ranchers and farmers that rely on our western
lands and access to clean, reliable supplies of water, the Rocky
Mountain Farmers Union is committed to ensuring that development
activities protect our water supplies that sustain our rural
economies.

Our organization represents more than 22,000 family farmers and
ranchers in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Sustainable,
diverse communities are the foundation of our western heritage. To
continue to thrive and to produce food for our communities and our
country, we need access to clean water supplies. Most of our members
have worked these lands for generations, and our ongoing success
depends on balanced access to our natural resources.

That ethic of responsibility and the conservation of our western water
is why we support the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM)
“research-first” approach to oil shale development. This policy
reflects prudent, measured steps to ensure that the federal leasing
program protects our western values.

Perhaps the biggest risk to our families and communities from oil
shale development would be the diversion of substantial amounts of
water. Such demand would threaten our way of life and undermine the
foundation of our communities.

Rivers like the Colorado River are already over-allocated, but demand
for water continues to grow. We cannot supply what we already know we
will need, let alone address a big new demand like the one that oil
shale brings to the table. Energy companies will have only one place
to turn to acquire new water rights: farmers and ranchers. That is not
in our nation’s or our communities’ economic interest. We all need to
grasp that what hurts farmers and ranchers hurts the region.
Agriculture is a keystone of the regional economy, an economic driver
that is perennial and sustainable, not a boomtown bubble. And water is
the key to agriculture. Appropriation and diversion by oil interests
of the water supplies crucial to crops and herds would jeopardize our
ability to produce food and threaten the jobs and economic activity
that agriculture creates.

Prior to Chevron’s admission, the oil industry claimed that new
technologies would require substantially less water than the BLM
projects, but offered no independently-verifiable data to support that
proposition. Thanks to Chevron, we now have industry confirmation that
development would use enormous quantities of water, and likely stain
existing already overburdened water supplies. Because of the severe
drought conditions the West has faced for the last few years, farmers
have been forced to let fields go fallow due to lack of irrigation
water, and ranchers have had to sell off cattle early in the season as
the cost of feed climbed.

Protecting our water supplies is not our sole interest. We need to
make sure that the oil shale industry pays its own way. Agriculture is
vital to western economies, and there are real jobs at stake that
could be greatly compromised and lost should local economies be
required to subsidize oil shale development. It is vitally important
that we make sure as a matter of sound economics and equity that rural
communities do not bear the disproportional impact of oil shale
development.

Over the past few years, the BLM initiated a series of critical
reforms that would force oil companies to prove they will not
devastate water supplies. This policy is critical to ensuring
additional resources are not squandered on costly oil shale
speculation by ensuring that industry put its cards on the table and
report on its actual water demands, just as Chevron had to do in its
court filing.

Until this filing Chevron, like others seeking to develop oil shale,
downplayed its water requirements, even suggesting that it might
produce more water than it consumes. We need an honest conversation to
protect all stakeholders that rely on water from the Colorado River
Basin. Chevron’s legal filing and the reforms the BLM has initiated
have opened that door.