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Garfield County officials debate using nuclear energy to power oil shale industry
By David O. Williams

April 27, 2009 — Recent talk of using nuclear energy to power the oil shale industry on Colorado’s Western Slope has elicited a wide range of reactions from government officials at what would be the epicenter of such a move — from serious doubt to matter-of-fact support.

In a recent interview, Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said everything should be on the table when it comes to America’s energy future.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to have it all or else we’re going to have to stop consuming energy with such an insatiable appetite,” Martin told, adding that people fear both nuclear power and the impacts of oil-shale production because they’re focused on less efficient and less safe technologies from the 1970s and ’80s.

He also said Rifle-area residents have an unreasonable fear of nuclear power because of an underground nuclear bomb test in nearby Rulison in 1969. The possibility of radioactive contamination sparked a lawsuit to stop natural-gas drilling that could dredge up nasty remnants of the Cold War-era contamination.

“Look at the Rulison blast and all the excitement it’s caused there and that was in 1969, when it’s actually safe and has been monitored since 1969, but you just mention it and Three Mile Island comes to their vision, as well as Chernobyl,” Martin said, referring to the past emergencies involving those now-infamous nuclear power plants. “What are we talking about? Old technology.”

Martin argues that U.S. nuclear facilities are now state of the art and providing huge amounts of power in Europe, but are being kept off American soil by over-regulation.

“What we have to do is show that it does work and we have to select the right spots to put it, and it’s going to have to be close to the grid,” Martin said. “We’re going to have to make some tough choices and those tough choices are going to be the location of a new atomic power plant.”

Several recent studies have shown upwards of 10 new coal-fired power plants would be needed to power the still-dormant oil shale energy, which uses extreme heat to extract oil from shale rock and sand. It’s estimated nearly a trillion barrels of oil are trapped in the shale of northwestern Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming.

Martin said those estimates of power consumption are based on the oil-shale technology in use when the industry went bust on the Western Slope in the early 1980s, and while he also disputes how much water the industry would consume at peak production, he agrees that’s really the key issue in any oil shale discussion.

“There are enough water rights because those water rights were secured [by oil and gas companies] and are senior to the water rights that are being used now and are junior,” Martin said. “If they start using that water, that’s where the issue is. Everyone that’s been using that water as junior will lose out.”

Water, or the lack of it, is one possible glitch in the nuclear solution. A study by Friends of the Earth Australia indicates nuclear is one of the thirstiest forms of power, requiring 2.3 liters of water per kilowatt-hour of electricity compared to 1.9 for coal, 1.6 for oil, .95 for natural gas, .11 for solar and .004 for wind.

Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert says it’s really too early to debate how best to power the oil-shale industry, especially since it remains in the testing stages and companies have not fully answered the water question.

“All of the issues have to be answered before oil shale becomes a viable consumer product in the United States,” Lambert said. “It’s premature probably to take a position on one particular type of technology or another so far as oil shale. None of the companies that are in the process of working with oil shale have come to grips with how to make it work economically.”

The oil extracted from shale would mostly be refined into gasoline to power cars and trucks, a big source of green house gas emissions believed by most scientists to be a major contributing factor to global warming. Lambert wonders if the push to revive the oil shale industry in the waning days of the Bush administration missed a bigger point.

“Quite frankly, and this is a throwback to the Bush administration, but if we’re going to spend all of this money on this technology for extraction of these natural resources, why don’t we put an equal amount into renewables and an equal amount into new technology for transportation that would allow us to get away from this natural resource or at least augment this natural resource to the point where we’re not so dependent on it?” Lambert said.

Lambert points out that, ultimately, all extractive energy sources will run out, whether in 50 years or 300.

Rifle, at the heart of a natural gas drilling boom that is off by about 50 percent since last year due to plummeting gas prices, has tried to even out the boom-and-bust nature of the energy industry by investing in renewables. It boasts the largest municipal solar power plant on the Western Slope and has set aside 200 acres of city land to attract other renewable-energy projects.

“In Rifle we want to marry the two together,” Lambert said. “We think under the circumstances there’s room for extractive but there’s also room for renewables, which is why we’ve taken the position we have and continue to expand our renewable portfolio.”



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