Scaled-back BLM oil shale plan reportedly backed by GarCo commissioners

The Garfield County commissioners reportedly back a scaled-back federal plan for oil shale development in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, as long as it leaves as much acreage as possible open for exploring and perhaps eventually extracting the still unproven form of fuel.

“I’m hopeful that with some of the [research and development] things that are going on, there are going to be less environmental impacts and that we can provide oil to our nation that’s from our country,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said, according to the Associated Press.

Shell in-situ oil shale research project in Colorado's Rio Blanco County (USGS photo).
Jankovsky, a Republican ski area operator who ousted Democrat Trési Houpt last year, said the commissioners got a preview of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan for oil shale development because the county is a “cooperating agency.” The BLM hopes to release its so-called “fresh look” at a 2008 Bush administration leasing plan by the end of this year.

Jankovsky told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that the BLM will trim at least 270,000 acres of federal land from the 2 million acres opened up for potential leasing during the waning days of the Bush administration. Environmental groups challenged the so-called “midnight regulations,” which also set royalty rates if oil shale ever becomes commercially viable.

Republican Colorado Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn want to scrap the Obama administration’s fresh look altogether, even though it was the product of a settlement with conservation groups worried about impacts to water and fragile Western Slope landscapes. Lamborn recently introduced legislation to compel the Interior Department to implement the Bush rules.

Jankovsky said the BLM proposal cuts 421 square miles from the proposed 3,125 square miles set aside in 2008, with the biggest cut coming in the form of the 182-square-mile Adobe Town area in Wyoming

There are an estimated 800 billion gallons of recoverable oil in the Green River Formation of northwestern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and eastern Utah, but companies like ExxonMobil and Shell have been working for decades to figure out how to extract crude oil from the organic kerogen trapped in the rocks and sand. The kerogen must be super-hearted either in the ground (“in situ”) or after surface mining of the rocks.

Garfield County was the epicenter of an oil shale boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s that never resulted in commercial production and precipitated a catastrophic bust that destroyed the economies of Western Slope towns such as Rifle, Parachute and Battlement Mesa.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin was a police officer in the 1980s who in 2008 told the Colorado Independent he has no desire the repeat the hard lessons learned from the “Black Sunday” bust of 1982.

“I crushed a lot of families in that I served them the papers they were dreading to get,” Martin said at the time. “I shut down businesses and boarded them up because they couldn’t pay their taxes or their mortgages, and I remember every one of their faces and I remember the heartache. You think I want that to happen with this energy boom? The answer is no, I definitely don’t.”

The natural gas boom Martin was referring to in 2008 did subside with the global recession and steep decline in gas prices. But gas drilling activity is picking up again across the state, although water remains a huge concern because of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Martin acknowledges water and conventional power consumption remain significant hurdles for the oil shale industry as well, which even proponents admit is perhaps “decades away” from full commercial production, but in the past he’s said every method must be explored to unlock the kerogen, including using nuclear power.