Obama accused of stalling on Colorado oil shale but fast-tracking Wyoming coal, tar sands in Canada

While critics on the right have accused the Obama administration of moving too slowly on the still-unproven potential of oil shale on Colorado’s Western Slope, observers on the left say the White House has been pushing too fast on an agenda promoting Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal and tar sands oil production in Canada.

The nonprofit Checks and Balances Project on Thursday released an analysis (pdf) of the nascent oil shale industry entitled “Oil Shale: a century old science fiction story.” It looks at more than 84,000 articles on oil shale between 1910 and 1980, many of them portraying the energy source as being very close to commercial viability. However, the process still remains experimental and has never produced oil for commercial consumption in the United States.

“For the last century, politicians and oil industry executives have been telling the greatest science fiction story in America, that oil shale will soon save America from our energy woes,” said Matt Garrington, the Denver-based deputy director of the Checks and Balances Project. “Oil shale amounts to 100 years of empty promises and failures. We need an honest debate on energy policy that looks at the reality and shortcomings of oil shale.”

Industry advocates and Republican politicians in Colorado, however, blame the Obama administration and an Interior Department led by former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar for reining in the Bush administration’s push to set lease terms for oil shale development on more public lands in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. A Colorado School of Mines professor says Obama is stalling on oil shale the way Bush dragged his feet on climate change.

“The development of [oil shale] resources would lead to tens of thousands of good paying jobs and help stabilize our energy supply – putting an end to spikes in gas prices,” U.S. Rep, Scott Tipton, R-Colo., wrote in an editorial in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Other Republican Colorado lawmakers have echoed Tipton’s sentiments.

On the other hand, Obama is taking serious heat from the left for his global climate change (or lack thereof) policies that have greatly expanded coal production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to the tune of 750 million tons of the stuff – or the equivalent of 300 new coal-fired power plants. That makes Colorado’s recent and highly contentious efforts to convert its systems of coal-fired power plants to natural gas and renewables look like somewhat of any empty gesture.

Still, the standard line on the right is that the United States has to increase domestic energy production to reduce its dependence on foreign sources. “It is all well and good to propose measures that may pay off decades in the future, such as alternative energy research and higher CAFÉ standards for vehicles,” U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., says on his website. “The most urgent and immediate solution though is to ramp up domestic production.”

But as renowned climate change writer Bill McKibben points out, much of the Powder River coal has to be moved to the West Coast, where it will be shipped to Asia to satisfy the growing energy needs of India and China. Ports in the Northwest, from Bellingham and Longview in Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia, are morphing into battlegrounds where the expansion necessary to accommodate the coal will be bitterly opposed.

“Since there are only so many possible harbors that could accommodate the giant freighters needed to move the coal, this might prove a winnable battle, though the power of money that moves the White House is now being brought to bear on county commissions and state houses,” McKibben writes. “Count on this: it will be a titanic fight.”

McKibben says strike two against Obama on climate change has been his continuation of Bush policy on pipeline permitting for tar sands oil production in Alberta, Canada. Unlike oil shale, tar sands oil production is up and running, lacking only market access from the far northern reaches of Canada to U.S. consumers. The Obama administration signed off on a pipeline into Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“The vast region of boreal Canada where the tar sands are found is an even bigger carbon bomb than the Powder River coal,” McKibben writes. “By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2 — or roughly half the current atmospheric concentration. Put another way, if we burn it, there’s no way we can control climate change.”