Polis jumps into congressional fight over oil shale subsidies

It is a common refrain in this Republican House of Representatives that Congress should not “pick winners and losers” in the energy marketplace. The comment is usually made while debating subsidies for alternative energy.

Today, though, Congress may go against the odds to try to pick a winner by voting on a measure that would allocate $25 million to oil shale research and development.

Before such a vote occurs, though, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, will likely offer an amendment to the appropriations for energy and water bill that would eliminate the oil shale subsidy.

Rep. Jared Polis (Image courtesy of Rep. Jared Polis)

“Oil shale will not produce an ounce of American energy in the foreseeable future,” said Polis spokesperson Chris Fitzgerald by email. “If energy companies believe, despite their 100 years of failing to find a commercially viable way to produce oil from oil shale, that this will work then they should invest their own profits rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money.”

One person who apparently agrees with him is conservative Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, who recently railed against oil shale subsidies on the House floor.

“I say let the companies experiment at their own expense — no cost to the taxpayer,” he said in February.

Of course, Lamborn has not always sung that tune, voting on numerous times to subsidize traditional energy extraction.

“After putting up billions for oil shale over the last several decades, federal taxpayers have nothing to show for it,” said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “In these tight budget times, we cannot afford to continue throwing good money after bad. We thank Congressman Polis for his efforts to eliminate $25 million for oil shale development in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill.”

Committee Report 112-462, which accompanies the appropriations bill and sets forth the specifics of how the appropriations are to be spent, says this about the need for oil shale funding:

With gas prices once again at record levels, the Committee believes it is more important than ever to use all means possible to increase the domestic oil supply. The nation has more than two trillion barrels in estimated shale oil (sic) [editor’s note: while the report repeatedly refers to “shale oil”, it is actually “oil shale” subsidies that are being proposed.] reserves, but significant economic and environmental barriers prevent our effective use of this significant resource. To accelerate the safe and effective use of the nation’s shale oil (sic) reserves, the Committee recommends $25,000,000 for shale oil (sic) technology research and development. The funding is to be used to support both research to improve the economics of oil production from shale oil (sic), as well as to reduce the health, safety, and environmental risks associated with shale oil (sic) extraction.

Not later than 90 days after enactment of this Act, the Department shall provide to the Committee a program proposal with specific objectives and timelines for improving the efficiency and environmental effects of oil shale retrieval.

This proposed expenditure comes on top of many years of failed investment in oil shale, which has never been commercially viable despite many years of study and exploration. Chevron recently announced it was discontinuing its oil shale explorations in Colorado.

Western Resource Advocates earlier this year issued a report which spells out that even if oil shale became commercially viable, it would do so at such a high cost to air and water values than any economic benefits would be more than canceled out by the environmental costs.

That report, can be seen here. (pdf)

In advance of today’s vote, a consortium of environmental groups came together to write an open letter to Congress, opposing the subsidy as well as numerous other parts of the bill.

June 1, 2012

Dear Representative: On behalf of our millions of members, activists and supporters, we strongly oppose H.R. 5325, the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY 2013, which would put America’s health, environment, and energy future at risk by gutting essential programs and including policy riders that block important environmental safeguards. We also urge you to vote against any damaging amendments and to support amendments that remove anti-environmental policy riders or restore funding to important programs.

Specifically, the bill contains the following harmful provisions:

· Sec. 110: This dirty water rider would block the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing final guidance to better protect critical water bodies from pollution or destruction as required by the Clean Water Act. The rider would make it harder to control dumping into many streams and wetlands that supply drinking water and prevent flooding, leaving the public at risk from contaminated waters and communities at risk from greater flood damage. More than 100 million Americans get their drinking water from public supplies provided in whole or in part from waters that the guidance will better protect. Recent floods around the country illustrate why blocking the Army Corps’ ability to protect headwater streams and wetlands is irresponsible — studies have shown that a one acre wetland can store up to a million gallons of flood water.

· Title III: Would cut funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by more than 24 percent below FY12 funding levels. DOE-led clean energy programs have helped drive innovation in energy technologies, while reducing the costs of these technologies significantly. Restoration of funding for critical solar, wind, efficiency and vehicle programs will mean more innovation, cleaner energy and more clean energy jobs.

· Title III: Would increase funding for polluting, mature fossil fuel and nuclear generation technologies as well as waste money on economically infeasible dirty fuels like oil shale. This approach is backward-looking, and provides taxpayer money for work that can be handled by private industry.

· Sect. 311: Would prevent DOE from spending funds to implement Section 433 of EISA. Section 433 contains important requirements to promote energy efficiency and sustainable design in federal buildings. It requires the reduction of fossil fuel use in new and major renovations of federal buildings by 55 percent in 2010 – gradually decreasing to a 100 percent reduction in 2030.

A reasonable bill would strengthen environmental safeguards, increase investments in the clean energy technologies of tomorrow and decrease our dependence on oil. Funding research and investment for renewables will mean clean energy jobs at home rather than these jobs going overseas. In contrast, the bill passed by House Appropriations Committee fails to meet those goals, instead cutting needed investments and using policy riders to block important environmental safeguards. Once again, we urge you to vote no on H.R. 5325 and on any harmful amendments while supporting efforts to remove harmful riders and restore important funding.


American Forests
American Rivers
Audubon Center for Biological Diversity
Defenders of Wildlife
Environment America
Friends of the Earth
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Wilderness Society

It’s hard to say where all the members of the Colorado delegation will come down on the larger bill or on the Polis amendment, but Lamborn at least has been clear.

In a February floor speech, Lamborn said, “So why don’t we let the companies experiment on their own expense, on their own time and see if they can find a commercial viable process that works to extract this hugely potential source of energy.”

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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