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February 03, 2012

Interior Department Slows Snake Oil Project: Puts Damper on Oil Shale Exploitation in 3 Western States

Utah Oil ShaleI clearly remember the Sunday headline in early May 1982. "Exxon Abandons Oil Shale Project" was the exact wording, followed by a story that told how at least 2,200 workers had just received their pink slips from a project that was going to be America's version of Saudi Arabian oil. Whether the technology to recover oil from oil shale just isn't ready, or will never be, for 100 years oil shale, like snake oil, has never lived up to its promises.

I'm reminded of that day today, nearly thirty years later, as we witness the latest chapter unfold in the ongoing, century-long saga of oil shale. Only this time the federal government is not rushing in blindly, but asking oil companies to prove their ability to extract usable oil from a rock formation found in parts of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Today the Bureau of Land Management released a long-awaited Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on the leasing of millions of acres for the purpose of developing oil shale. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar ordered the study back in 2009. After a thorough scientific review, the agency recommends a dramatic scaling back of federal lands available for leasing, and only for research and development -- not full-scale commercial leasing -- until the industry can demonstrate that oil shale is a viable energy source that won't have unintended consequences on a region that is defined by a lack of water. 

According to a statement released by the BLM:

Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use, and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil shale development, we're proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity," BLM director Bob Abbey said in a prepared statement. "If oil shale is to be viable on a commercial scale, we must take a common-sense approach that encourages research and development first.

BLM's new approach reduces the Bush-era plan to lease nearly 2 million acres down to 461,000 acres, split unevenly among the three states. Utah will be allowed to lease 252,000 acres, Wyoming gets 174,000, and Colorado gets 35,000.

Some would say that it's politics. I'd say that it's common sense. Why allow oil companies to lease and tie up large chunks of federal lands for speculation (some would say their real goal is to pad their portfolio in order to attract investors) when, after a century of trying, no one has demonstrated a viable process to extract usable oil from a rock?

Common sense tells us that caution is the best approach when it comes to the nexus between historical snake oil, like oil shale, and the very real potential impacts to air and water, specifically the Colorado River watershed, which provides water for roughly 30 million people, some spectacular lands and wildlife, and outdoor opportunities enjoyed by millions every year.

It should go without saying that the BLM is demonstrating sound public policy in this recommended action alternative. In plain English, it says, "Hold on, folks. Before we go whole-hog in leasing all this land for something that we still aren't sure will work, let's make sure that it can be done and that it can be done safely. And we'll let you try on over 400,000 acres of publicly-owned lands. When you get that figured out, come back and we'll talk."

This is a common sense approach and a conservative approach.

Ironically, the conservative approach is not how I would describe the reaction of some elected officials. Like U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch who blamed the Obama Administration for preventing oil companies from accessing, "nearly a trillion barrels of recoverable oil." Did he just say "recoverable?"

Right. Senator Hatch's comments remind me of another headline that reads "Shale Will Yield Gasoline Supply." Only thing, I wasn't around when this one was written. Senator Hatch wasn't either. This one ran in the New York Times ... in 1916.

-- Tim Wagner, Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats Campaign/image: Argonne National Laboratory

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