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February 15, 2011

Dirty Fuels: New Settlement Can Protect Our Nation's Forests from Oil Shale Development

Today Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management announced an important settlement that will allow the Department of the Interior to protect wildlife, scarce water supplies, and recreational values on federals lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming from oil shale development.

Conservation groups had charged that the Bush Administration Department of Interior violated the law by failing to consider alternatives that protected public lands and critical wildlife habitat and by failing to adequately consider the impacts of oil shale on air quality and climate change.

In the final hours of the Bush Administration, the Department of Interior (DOI) amended 12 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land use plans to open up two million acres of land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to applications for commercial oil shale leasing and a smaller area to tar sands leasing. Additionally BLM set unexpectedly low royalty rates for the oil companies' use of taxpayer land and overlooked critical environmental considerations surrounding this proposed development.

While this settlement will not automatically reverse these decisions, it does ensure that DOI has the opportunity to thoroughly review these past decisions with input from the public and oil shale companies so the Department can make the best use of public resources. 


Oil shale development is one of the most foolhardy and irresponsible propositions coming out of the energy sector today. A commercial oil shale industry would turn the American west into an industrial wasteland. First, extracting the oil from the oil shale may require more energy than would be produced. Both strip mining or in-situ mining (which involves heating the ground to more than 700 degrees fahrenheit to melt out the oil known as kerogen) require vast amounts of energy.

Secondly, developing oil shale consumes massive amounts of water. If it were even possible to produce one million barrels per day from oil shale, equal to about five percent of the U.S. daily consumption of crude oil, we would forfeit as much water each year as is used by the two million residents of the Denver, Colorado, metro area. 

Increasing Colorado's water consumption by this volume would threaten western agriculture, development, and livelihoods. And finally, oil shale is a dangerously carbon intensive fuel. According to Adam Brandt with Stanford University, it would produce 25 percent to 75 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional fuel.

Fortunately, oil shale remains commercially unviable, and the industry's best case scenarios predict that it will remain so for the next fifteen years or more. Even so, the industry has already bought up large areas of land and local rights to water for future use. And the federal government continues to offer public lands for research and development work.

It's a shame we have to waste our time ensuring that such a foolhardy enterprise is not given more access to taxpayer resources when instead we should be spending the next fifteen years doing everything we can to end our dependence on oil through increased use of electric vehicles, policies that increase our vehicle and building efficiency, investment in high speed rail, improved transit and freight systems and development of a clean energy economy.

-- Kate Colarulli, Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Campaign

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