Denver While one Colorado River District official called Shell Oil's request for Yampa River water rights "just another water filing," state lawmakers and other Capitol observers say it's much more than that.
"It's certainly got a lot of folks' attention," said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. "It does increase the visibility of oil shale, no question about that. But it's pretty early yet to tell how all of that will play out."
No legislation is expected to result from Shell Oil's filing late last month for enough water off the Yampa to fill a 45,000-acre-foot reservoir in Moffat County. The filing for 375 cubic feet per second was made Dec. 30 in the District 6 Water Division office in Steamboat Springs.
However, it has caught the attention of many at the Colorado Legislature because it is tied to the Shell Mahogany Research Project's ongoing efforts to find a way to extract oil from the vast shale deposits in Northwest Colorado.
"This is probably one of the largest filings that we have seen recently and hopefully, it indicates that we will be moving forward with oil shale production in western Colorado," said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. "It's higher on people's radar screen, and there's nothing wrong with that. We need to have the discussion about energy independence and how we as a state can support that."
House District 57 Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said Shell's filing is one reason he still is pushing for an assignment to the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.
"I want to get on Ag, so I can keep an eye on what's going on with water," said Baumgardner. "I want to make sure we keep as much water on the West Slope as we possibly can."
Although most committee assignments were made before the General Assembly began its 2009 session, the first-term lawmaker for Northwest Colorado said he is not giving up and will continue to sit in on the Agriculture Committee's meetings when he can.
Baumgardner, who has been assigned to the Transportation and Energy Committee and the Education Committee, said he expected Shell's massive water filing to "elevate the discussion about oil shale development."
"If we are going to continue to be the energy leader, it's another avenue we have to look at," he said. "Oil shale is in our energy future, and we're going to have to cross that bridge."
Chris Treese, the Colorado River District's lobbyist at the Capitol, said the conservancy district has been talking to Shell about its shale project for at least two years. He said the district is glad that Shell is trying to develop new water as opposed to buying existing water rights, which most often affects agriculture.
"As they develop the water supplies they need for the oil shale industry, we want to make sure that we also are working with them to plan adequately for municipal, environmental and other uses and see if we can put a good project together," Treese said. "There's no need for anything legislatively. It's just another water rights filing."
The Gunnison Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Kathleen Curry, said Shell's action has not had a direct impact on her committee. But she agreed it makes the prospect of oil shale development "seem a little more real."
"I take it as a sign that Shell is moving forward at some level," Curry said. "They are doing their due diligence - taking steps to make sure their project works."
Curry said she recently met with Shell officials and concluded "they still don't have certainty regarding their technology" to recover shale oil.
She said, however, that Shell's project will become part of the overall conversation at the Legislature about water management.
"They've staked out a place in line for a significant amount of water and the dominoes will fall because of that," Curry said. "If they are awarded a conditional decree, others will have to plan accordingly.
"If the Yampa is being tapped for Western Slope energy development, then I would think the Front Range would be focusing on other basins and then the Gunnison and Roaring Fork become potential target areas."
Curry said no legislators had asked her to convene an informational hearing on the development of oil shale on the Western Slope, but she didn't rule it out. She and the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee chairman, Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, conduct weekly briefings for their members during legislative sessions on a variety of issues.
"It may help members learn more about where we stand with oil shale development, what is the regulatory process, the permitting process and how it works in conjunction with the federal government," Curry said. "I'm just sort of monitoring it."
Isgar's committee Thursday took about two minutes to approve a bill that moves the White River drainage basin from Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs to Division 6 water court in Steamboat Springs.
There was no testimony on the bill, which had the unanimous recommendation of last summer's Water Resources Review Committee. It was put on the Senate's "consent calendar," which is reserved for noncontroversial bills that don't require debate.
"It just aligns the water court with the water division," Treese explained. "Nobody's really going to know the difference unless they have to go to water court. They will just drive to Steamboat instead of Glenwood Springs."