Environmental Groups on Oil Shale Study: Read and React

PhotobucketThe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was mandated by Congress to write a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) that would study the environmental, social and economic impacts of an oil shale industry in northwest Colorado. Incidentally, the public, local governments, the state and the energy industry has had only 45 days to remark on the 1,400 page tome — and hurry up, environmental groups are warning, the deadline is drawing near.Representatives from the Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC), which represents about 100 environmental and civic groups  and the Western Colorado Congress (WCC), a community and environmental activist organization, encouraged a group of Rifle-area citizens on Tuesday to respond to the oil shale PEIS because of its impact in the future growth of the area.

The BLM has been on the road to explain the contents of the proposed 1,400-page study in areas that will be directly affected by oil shale development such as Rangely, Meeker, Rifle and Grand Junction. Environmental groups say they are following the BLM trail to make sure citizens hear more about the proposals in the study.

“We want to provide citizens important information about the PEIS so local citizens can make education educated decisions and comment on the plan,” explained Luke Shager, the northwest coordinator for CEC. “We want to share what we know about it and hear people’s feedback.”

“There will be impacts on air and water from an oil shale industry that we think are not acceptable,” Frank Smith from the WCC said. “Speculation that it will take four barrels of water for every barrel of oil could reduce the White River 8 percent and the Colorado River by 10 percent according to the BLM study and there is the possibility of groundwater contamination.”

Smith added that it could take up to 10 coal-fired power plants to supply the energy needed to mine oil shale.

“We have economic concerns, too, that we feel weren’t properly addressed in the study, like what happens when oil shale leaves. I’m new to the area, but it didn’t take me long to hear about Black Sunday,” Smith said.

Black Sunday — May 2, 1982 — is the day when Exxon pulled the plug on its oil shale operations, which threw northwest Colorado into a decade-long recession and devastated local businesses and the real estate market.

Shafer admitted the BLM study is difficult to read, especially under a tight deadline. “Washington politicians have set an unrealistic end-of-the-year deadline to finalize this study, which is supposed to be the building block for oil shale development in western Colorado,” Shafer asserted. “Congress has mandated deadlines with no viable commercial or scientific data to back up their rush to mine oil shale.”

Another concern is that once public lands are leased for oil shale — approximately 300,000 acres in northwest Colorado alone — the land is considered private property, according to Shafer. “It’s possible we would no longer be able to go hunting, recreate or graze cattle on the Roan Plateau area and the Piceance Creek basin,” he warned.

Carolyn Tucker, community relations representative for Shell Exploration and Production, said the BLM document was a start. “As a company involved in oil shale development, we want to know about all possible regulations and costs that the BLM might impose so we can develop a business plan and look ahead.”

She agreed with Shafer that the BLM study was hard to read. “Believe me, we’re struggling through it, too,” Tucker said.

Shell, like other energy companies, has acquired senior water rights. “But Shell’s oil shale plant is still experimental and we don’t know our projected water needs yet,” explained Tucker. “Shell is concerned about economic viability, environmental sustainability and its impact on local communities. We don’t want another Black Sunday either.”

Shafer emphasized  how important it was for people to comment on the BLM oil shale PEIS. “This may be the last opportunity to voice our opinion and I encourage you to exercise this unique opportunity to comment on a national government policy,” he said to the group at the meeting. “How often does a government agency seek our opinion? We should respond to this BLM plan. Just think of the other agencies — has the U.S. Defense Department ever asked for your opinion?”

For information about how to make public comments on the BLM’s proposed study, go here. The Environmental Coalition will also have oil shale discussions in Meeker, Rangely and Grand Junction.