BLM releases final oil shale plan
September 5, 2008
DENVER ” Federal officials are releasing a final plan for opening nearly 2 million acres of public land in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to commercial oil shale development.
The Bureau of Land Management finalized the plan on Thursday, a month later than planned to give the public more time to comment. The agency planned to post the document online Friday.
The potential of the region’s vast oil shale reserves is getting close attention as the debate over increasing domestic energy production heats up.
The shale is thought to contain 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The technology to squeeze the oil out of the rock is still experimental and commercial production is likely at least a decade off.
Some officials in Wyoming and Colorado have questioned the push to approve plans and leasing regulations considering that development isn’t imminent.
“The administration is putting the cart in front of the horse by trying to sell these leases prematurely,” Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said in a written statement.
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The BLM itself has said it could be several years before it’s clear if commercial oil shale development is possible, Salazar said. The agency has also said it’s unsure how much water and power oil shale production would require, he added.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter accused the Bush administration of “last-minute maneuvering in its waning days” rather than acting responsibly.
The federal government in July issued draft rules for commercial leasing that included a range of royalty rates. A congressional moratorium on issuing final regulations expires at the end of September.
Salazar sponsored the moratorium and is proposing to extend it.
BLM spokesman Matt Spangler said the plan says where oil shale could be leased. “We have to identify lands where we’re going to do it,” he said.
The BLM said it clarified parts of the final programmatic environmental impact statement based on more than 105,000 comments from the public, but didn’t make significant changes.
A programmatic analysis takes a broader scope than a typical review. BLM officials have said more in-depth analyses will be done as specific projects are proposed.
Colorado officials, communities and conservationists say too much is unknown, including how or if oil shale can be produced commercially, to finalize a plan or leasing regulations.
The BLM said in its draft plan and regulations that it doesn’t know what kind of technology will be used, the potential environmental effects or the economic of oil shale development, said Chase Huntley, an energy policy adviser with The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C.
Still, some in Congress are pushing to get oil shale production going, Huntley said.
“There seems to be this belief that this energy is just waiting to be tapped if only Congress would quit its bungling and unlock this treasure trove,” Huntley said.
Coloradans who lived through the oil shale bust of the 1980s are leery of the kind of economic devastation that occurred when the fledgling industry failed despite huge government subsidies. They refer to “Black Sunday,” when Exxon closed its $5 billion oil shale project near Parachute on May 2, 1982, putting 2,200 people out of work.
Tracy Boyd, spokesman for Shell Exploration and Production, said he believes it’s important that the government proceed with an oil shale plan and regulations even if commercial development is several years off.
Shell has been experimenting with oil shale mining on private land in northwestern Colorado since the mid-1990s. Boyd said Thursday that the company likely won’t decide whether to start commercial development until the middle of the next decade.
Meanwhile, though, Boyd said companies need to know what kinds of royalties will be imposed on oil shale and what lands will be available. He noted that the environmental review is about two years past a deadline in the 2005 federal energy bill. He said the plan is just the first step in a series of environmental reviews that projects would have to go through.
“Nothing is happening fast in there at all,” Boyd said.