The state’s fixation on oil and gas development threatens the Colorado River watershed.
MAY 4, 2023
The White River in Northeastern Utah emerges from the Colorado mountains into the Uinta Basin. Russel Albert Daniels
The GPS coordinates weren’t especially helpful last May as we drove across the remote Tavaputs Plateau in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Cell service was spotty in the vast expanse of land crosshatched with unpaved roads identified on the map only as “Well Road 4304735551” or “Chevron Pipeline Road.” Photographer Russel Albert Daniels and I had set off that morning from Vernal (population 10,241), in search of a 15-square-mile plot of undeveloped land purchased in 2011 by the Estonian-government-owned energy company Enefit.
On that land, the Estonians had hoped to create the first commercial-scale oil shale mining and processing facility in the United States, with a 320-acre industrial plant that would process 28 million tons of strip-mined shale and turn it into 50,000 barrels of oil every day for 30 years. Rich with traditional oil and gas reserves, the Uinta Basin also sits atop the largest oil shale reserve in the world, a 6 million-year-old geologic formation where Utah officials estimate a tantalizing 77 billion barrels of potentially recoverable oil lie just waiting to be exploited.
At a public meeting back in 2013, former Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told the Deseret News that the “exciting” Enefit project “has the potential to create significant revenue and jobs here in Utah and help with energy independence nationwide.” Cody Stewart, an energy adviser to former Governor Gary Herbert, called it “a game changer” with “the potential to make Utah a significant player on the energy map.”
The prognosis was not quite as bright in Estonia. Two years after the purchase, Estonian parliament members warned that the government risked losing $100 million on the deal because early lab tests in Germany had failed to affordably produce oil from Utah’s shale. Ingo Valgma, director of the mining department at the Tallinn University of Technology, told an Estonian journalist that the technology for producing oil in Utah was not a few years away but decades. Nonetheless, the Estonians stayed put and Utah’s elected officials sallied forth, optimistically insisting that oil shale riches were just around the corner.
As Russel and I bumped along the dirt roads of eastern Utah in search of Enefit’s land, it became painfully obvious that the Estonians had overlooked a major problem when they plunked down $42 million to acquire 30,000 acres of sagebrush in the basin: water, or the lack of it. Pulling a single barrel of oil out of shale requires between two and four barrels of water. The Uinta Basin lies within an arid, desert climate that averages about 8 inches of rain annually at the wettest of times. What little it does have comes from the critical watershed of the dying Colorado River, which more than 40 million people in the West rely on for agriculture and drinking water.
Enefit’s land sits just 40 miles from where the White River meets the Green, the largest and most important tributary of the Colorado River. To mine and process oil shale, Enefit hoped to suck as much as 11,000-acre-feet of water out of the Green River every year—about 10 million gallons a day, or enough to supply the daily needs of 90,000 households downstream in Arizona. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons or enough to cover about a football field with a foot of water.) Unfortunately, perhaps, for Enefit, “That water, more than likely, doesn’t exist,” says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Last summer, during one of the driest years of a 23-year mega drought in the West, the federal government told the seven Colorado River basin states they must come up with a plan to reduce water consumption by up to 40 percent of the river’s current volume, or enough to serve more than 6 million households for a year. This year, federal water managers plan to cut deliveries from the river by up to 25 percent. Record snowfall this winter may head off some of the worst of the cuts, but the runoff will only partially refill badly depleted Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoirs. The water crisis remains urgent, and the long-term prospects for the Colorado are grim.
The dire state of the Colorado River hasn’t stopped Utah officials from enthusiastically supporting policies to encourage Enefit’s oil shale production and all sorts of other thirsty, ill-conceived fossil fuel projects in the Uinta Basin in what some environmentalists have dubbed a “suicide pact.” These projects and priorities generally, and Enefit’s in particular, illustrate how a state, run largely by people who don’t believe in climate change, still presses ahead with carbon-belching fossil-fuel developments that, if successful, will only exacerbate the megadrought that has brought the Colorado River—and the West—to the brink of disaster.“I’ve given talks to high-level people in Utah who refuse to acknowledge the relationship between climate change and the drought and the American West.”
“The whole connection between water and climate change, and conventional energy development and climate change, is not front and center” in Utah, says Udall. “I’ve given talks to high-level people in Utah who refuse to acknowledge the relationship between climate change and the drought and the American West.”
In 1861, LDS church president Brigham Young assembled a group of missionaries in Salt Lake City and ordered them to set off for the Uinta Basin to create new Mormon settlements in the region—lest the “Gentiles” get there first. A few months later, the scouting party reported back gloomily that the basin was “one vast contiguity of waste, and measurably valueless, excepting for nomadic purposes, hunting grounds for Indians, and to hold the world together.” Young suggested to President Abraham Lincoln that he use the wasteland for a Ute tribe reservation—and that’s what happened.
About 20 years later, however, a white settler named Mike Callahan built a new cabin just over the border in Colorado next to Parachute Creek. He used pretty, local rocks for his fireplace and chimney. Legend has it that the first time he lit a fire on the hearth, the cabin burned down. The pretty rocks turned out to be flammable oil shale. Ever since, speculators have been trying to figure out how to monetize those massive shale deposits in Utah. Still, it wasn’t until the oil shocks of the 1970s that the federal government got involved.
In 1974, the Department of Interior leased two large parcels of public land in the Uinta Basin that Enefit now controls to a consortium of oil companies that became the White River Shale Company. The Carter administration created loan subsidies and other supports to encourage oil shale mining, and construction began on a coal-fired power plant to support the future industry. In 1982, the White River Shale company pledged to invest $100 million into the operation and began the construction of a new mine in the basin.
Just three years later, global oil prices collapsed, Ronald Reagan cut off federal subsidies for alternative fuel development, and the company officially abandoned the mine. But in 2005, Congress passed a bill pushed by President George W. Bush and Utah Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett that declared oil shale an “important domestic resource” for national security and directed the federal government to accelerate its development.”We are committed to being in the oil shale business for years and years to come.”
The US Bureau of Land Management moved to reopen the mine in 2006 and leased the 160-acre site to a company backed by an Alabama coal firm called Oil Shale Exploration to conduct research on oil shale processing. “We are committed to being in the oil shale business for years and years to come,” promised managing partner Dan Elcan at the time. The company lasted five years. In 2011, Enefit bought all the defunct company’s assets, including the White River mine lease and 30,000 acres of private land nearby where it planned to open a shale processing plant.