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How the West's Energy Boom Could Threaten Drinking Water for 1 in 12 Americans

A rush to develop domestic oil, gas and uranium deposits along the Colorado River and its tributaries is a threat to our children's future

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But because the energy industry has been exempted from so many federal environmental regulations during the Bush administration, it's difficult to assess the industry's true impact on the river.

The mix of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing is held as proprietary competitive information by the industry and kept secret from even the EPA. Scientists say that without knowing the specific ingredients in the mix, they don't know what compounds to test for after a spill and can't check to see if they've reached the river.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also exempted from federal control and water protection laws are the drilling industry's construction activities, including the sediments and dust produced from thousands of miles of road building, site grading and the drilling itself, even though that debris often ends up in waterways.

"We have seen an explosion in drilling, and at the same time we have seen a weakening of the federal standards under which drilling occurs," said Dusty Horwitt, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group.

Given the relaxation in regulatory authority, the development may be out-pacing scientists' ability to measure the implications.

In August drilling companies bid on 55,000 acres of federal parcels atop the Roan Plateau, a cherished wilderness area in central Colorado that drains into the Colorado River. A September report from the University of Colorado Denver predicted that in 15 years Garfield County, a western drilling area bisected by the river, will have 23,000 wells, six times what is has now, based on permit applications already filed with the state.

The push to drill continued last week, when the BLM opened 148,598 more acres of federal land near Moab to drilling. Quarterly lease sales in that area during the last two years were typically about 75,000 acres.

"It seems reckless," said Bill Hedden, director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Near his home outside Moab, natural gas drilling rigs may soon be visible through Delicate Arch, the wind-hewn bridge of rock at Arches National Park that graces Utah's license plate.

"We Americans have tried to export a lot of our problems off to the boondocks -- but in this case the boondocks is the watershed and the problem is coming right back to us," Hedden said.

According to Spisak, the BLM official in charge of drilling, the Maob sale is the result of "pent up build-up" in the cue of requests the agency is handling. Companies that want to drill on federal land ask the BLM to consider listing that land for a future lease sale. Over the past few years, Spisak said, environmental organizations have challenged some of the listings the BLM approved, delaying their sale. Now the agency is catching up.

"We are required to push them forward," Spisak said. "It's due to pressures of prices and industry, and we are responding to the market demand."

An Unprecedented Demand

Colorado River (Flickr User: WisDoc)

 

Colorado River (Flickr User: WisDoc)

No project poses a greater threat to the Colorado River -- or better represents the choice between water and energy -- than mining for oil shale.

In mid November the BLM quietly approved a rule change that paved the way for extracting oil from rock deposits in Colorado and Utah, smack in the heart of the river's watershed. If the vast deposits are mined to their potential -- and it could be a decade before any of the projects go forward -- the reserves could help the United States make a significant leap towards energy independence.

 
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