The Utah Division of Water Resources released an updated estimate of water needs for the Uintah Basin's oil shale and tar sand industries in the division's 2016 Uintah Basin Water Plan. The estimated industry needs in the plan are lower than previous estimates from environmental groups and industry analyses.
The division estimated that between 0.5 and 4 barrels of water were required per barrel of oil produced for various methods of extracting crude oil from oil shale and tar sand. The plan concluded that 22,140-83,700 acre-feet of water per year would be required for the oil shale and tar sand industries together depending on production levels.
The plan, released in Nov. 2016, detailed the estimated water needs of the slowly developing oil shale and tar sand industry located primarily in southern Uintah County. The plan examined not only the estimated water usage, but also how those estimates compared to water availability.
A USGS estimate of the Green River Formation cited in the plan concluded roughly three trillion barrels of oil exist in the Green River Formation's oil shale and that half of that - 1.5 trillion barrels - may be recoverable. The plan then cited a Utah Geological Survey estimate pegging the resource at 77 billion barrels once constrained by richness, thickness and depth criteria. The plan said that the recoverable reserve would likely be even less than 77 billion barrels because available technology is only in developmental stages and may not be able to profitably extract the full resource.
Robert Dubuc, a staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, agreed that the recoverable reserve would likely be far less than 77 billion barrels due to technological constraints including a lack of viable in-situ extraction processes to draw kerogen out of oil shale and tar sand.
"No viable technology exists to extract kerogen from oil shale in situ and the in situ technology that exists for tar sand (and that is used in other countries such as Canada) cannot be used with the type of tar sand deposits we have in Utah," Dubuc wrote in an email. "That means that both the oil shale and tar sand deposits have to be close enough to the surface (typically 300-500 feet) to dig up and process."
The plan noted that estimates from as recently as 2010 determined that the extraction of oil from shale required 1-12 barrels of water per barrel of oil extracted from in-situ oil shale operations and 2-4 barrels of water per barrel of oil extracted from shale in surface retort operations. The DNR plan then cited a 2015 estimate that determined 0.5-2 barrels of water were required per barrel of oil for surface impediment extraction, a variation of the in-situ process.
Dubuc said that the plan's estimates were incomplete and too low.
"In situ technology is a non-starter, so there’s no point even going there," wrote Dubuc. "As for surface operations, it depends on the type of technology that’s being used. However, the DNR estimates are too low. It takes 1-2 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced for non-operational needs such as domestic use and dust suppression. The DNR estimate must therefore assume that no water at all is being used in the extraction process, which is unrealistic."
Ted Zukoski, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, said that a Bureau of Land Management analysis of the proposed Enefit oil shale project in southeast Uintah County, which was based on industry data, pegged water usage much higher than the Division of Water Resources plan.
"Industry estimates for oil shale development range from 2.6 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of shale oil produced for a surface mine with surface retort and an underground mine with surface retort projects, and from 1 to 3 barrels of water for each barrel produced for in situ projects," Zukoski wrote in an email. "A surface mine or underground mine with surface retort plants with capacities of 9 to 11 million barrels per year (or 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day) could consume 3,050 to 5,640 acre-feet of water per year."
The proposed Enefit project would produce 50,000 barrels of oil per day.
The Division of Water Resources plan estimated that 22,140 acre-feet of water per year would be needed if production was 200,000 barrels per day for oil shale and 500,000 barrels per day for tar sand. It estimated a need of 83,700 acre-feet per year if production was 1 million barrels daily for oil shale and 1.5 million barrels daily for tar sand.
Dubuc said the estimates were low and pointed out that the totals in the plan reflected a water usage of less than 0.5 barrels of water per barrel of crude - less than the division's lowest estimate of in-situ water usage.
"We’re talking simple math here and frankly their numbers don’t make sense," Dubuc wrote. "In order to arrive at that figure they appear to be assuming that it takes less than one half barrel of water per barrel of oil. As I noted above, non-production needs alone are estimated to take 1-2 barrels of water per barrel for either resource."
Based on the estimate figures in the plan, the Division of Water Resources concluded in the plan that the water needs of the oil shale and tar sand industry were within the capacity of water sources in the region.
An author of the Division of Water Resources plan, who asked to remain anonymous, declined to go on record regarding the plan's estimates of water usage.