Oil shale backers blast Salazar, but Ritter supports lease limitations

Even as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was announcing new environmental reforms for the next round of oil shale research and development leases on public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming on Tuesday, proponents of the unproven fuel source were touting their progress at an oil shale confab in Golden.

Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines and the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research, the meeting, which runs through today, highlighted technological progress being made on six previous research, development and demonstration (RD&D) leases (five in Colorado and one in Utah).

The Associated Press quoted one industry expert who said 35 different companies are currently working on ways to affordably extract kerogen – organic material that’s a precursor to oil – trapped in the oil shale and tar sands of the Green River Formation spread over northwestern Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming.

Citing U.S. Geological Survey numbers much higher than previous estimates, the AP put the Green River reserves at 2 trillion to 2.5 trillion barrels of oil, with western Colorado’s Piceance Basin alone containing approximately 1.5 trillion barrels.

But the question is at what price will that oil be extracted over the next several decades?

Environmentalists, residents of the Western Slope and a growing number of politicians say full-scale, commercial oil shale production would essentially industrialize the highly arid and environmentally sensitive area of the Rocky Mountains, requiring far too much water and power and irreversibly polluting fragile mountain landscapes.

The opposition has politicized the debate, Jeremy Boak, head of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, told the AP. Boak said Salazar’s decision to limit new RD&D leases and more closely monitor their progress will inhibit research.

“I feel like the arguments are highly political arguments, not technical ones,” Boak said.

But Gov. Bill Ritter Tuesday issued a statement supporting Salazar’s new rules for the next round of RD&D leases, as well as his decision to pursue an Interior Department investigation of amendments made to previous leases during the waning days of the Bush administration. Here’s Ritter’s statement in its entirety:

“Secretary Salazar has wisely decided to institute reforms in the second round of the Research, Development & Demonstration program. Constraints on the size of leases and due diligence requirements are key parts of the Secretary’s new approach to focusing on questions that must be answered before oil shale research can transition to commercial development.

“Colorado has always supported a robust RD&D process to research and evaluate the technologies that could be used to develop oil shale and to better understand the environmental impacts.

“The potential for oil shale development in Colorado, and the economic opportunity that it represents, is huge. But the prospect of commercial-scale activities raises significant questions about how oil shale can be successfully integrated into our state’s economy and how we can protect the state’s environment, water and communities.

“We’re also pleased to learn that the Secretary has asked the IG’s office to investigate the details surrounding the amendment of the leases in January. We had concerns about the process by which these amendments were developed and by a number of their terms.”

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