Oil shale resonates as election issue in Colorado, the West
MEEKER, Colo. A key issue in the Rocky Mountain West this political season is how to tap Western oil reserves that could be twice as large as Saudi Arabia’s but are encased in rock.”At a time when Americans are screaming for energy independence, no policymaker can ignore that there are between 1 and 2 trillion barrels of oil shale and 800 billion barrels of oil equivalent to be recovered,” says Bob Schaffer, a Republican and former congressman who is running for Colorado’s open U.S. Senate seat.His opponent, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, calls for a go-very-slow approach, citing environmental concerns about shale extraction. Udall and fellow Democrats voted to delay federal rules to regulate shale’s development much to the chagrin of President Bush, who declared in July that oil shale is key to economic recovery.The presidential campaigns have weighed in, mindful of polls that suggest that finding new sources of energy is a priority for many Western voters. In the Mountain West, oil shale plays as prominent a role as natural gas and oil drilling.Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate, recently joined a Colorado crowd in chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and “Mine, baby, mine.” McCain spokesman Tom Kise said the GOP ticket supports a more cautious, if “all-of-the-above,” approach to energy independence.”But whenever we’re exploring for new energy sources, be it here in Colorado or off the coast, it has to be done in a way that is environmentally responsible,” Kise said.”Unlike the Bush administration’s reckless develop-at-all-costs strategy, (Barack) Obama will work with local stakeholders to determine the best path forward and will ensure that science not big oil guides our decision-making processes,” Obama campaign spokesman Matt Chandler said in a written statement.What Bush has referred to as “enormous reserves” lie beneath the Green River Basin of northwestern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and eastern Utah. The area contains an estimated 1 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil up to three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia locked in rock. Roughly 800 billion barrels are considered recoverable.The trick is getting the oil out. People have tried off and on for nearly a century. The shale, or kerogen, is a precursor that wasn’t buried deeply enough or naturally processed long enough to complete the transformation to oil. And even the most ardent supporters of mining oil shale concede commercial development is likely at least a decade off.”It’s like watching submarine races,” said Tracy Boyd, spokesman for Shell Exploration & Production, whose operation near the northwestern Colorado town of Meeker is considered to be further along than many firms trying to squeeze oil out of the rock.Boyd was referring to a rectangular, football-sized mass of pipes in a field of the sagebrush-covered and pinon pine and juniper forest. All of the action injecting coolant to freeze groundwater is below the surface and out of sight.Previous attempts focused on mining and then heating the shale aboveground. Shell’s process involves heating the oil underground and extracting it. Shell is experimenting with freezing groundwater to form a wall of ice that creates a barrier around below-ground heaters to protect the quality of surrounding water.Despite investing “many tens of millions of dollars,” Boyd said, it could be the middle of the next decade before Shell decides on pursuing commercial development.The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved a plan to open nearly 2 million acres of federal land in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to commercial oil shale development. A congressional ban on using federal funds to write final regulations for development expired in September, and the BLM has said it intends to issue a final version by year’s end.Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, encouraged government and industry leaders to act responsibly, but also urged federal officials to finalize the rules before a new administration takes over.”We stand here on the precipice of very interesting things happening in oil shale,” Huntsman said at a recent Denver forum.Huntsman is concerned about a new administration wanting to review policy, said Lisa Roskelley, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The biggest concern is the time lost,” she said.Sen. Ken Salazar and fellow Colorado Democrats, Reps. Mark Udall and John Salazar, sponsored the ban because of concerns about the effect on the arid region’s water supply, air quality and communities.Industry and federal officials note the Interior Department is behind schedule in crafting oil shale regulations mandated by a 2005 federal energy bill. They say commercial development will have to go through rounds of environmental analysis, and that energy companies need some certainty before forging ahead.Advocacy groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Future Fund have sponsored TV ads portraying Udall as an obstructionist who opposes oil and natural gas drilling and, by implication, oil shale development. Once an opponent of offshore drilling, Udall now favors opening more of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling and in areas where the states agree.Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, said he believes oil shale has great potential. But he notes that Shell recently withdrew a permit to start work on a 160-acre federal lease so it could to do more testing at a privately owned site.”We have the private sector behaving sensibly, then we have the Bush administration in a rush to write rules on commercial oil shale development,” Ritter said.Most Coloradans, Ritter added, despite their political leanings, want to move cautiously because of the industry’s history in the state.Colorado’s last oil shale boom went bust when oil prices dropped and government subsidies dried up. People still refer to “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, when Exxon shut down a $5 billion project near the West Slope town of Parachute, throwing 2,200 people out of work.
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