Colorado senators applaud BLM proposal to rein in oil shale leasing in American West

The Bureau of Land Management proposed a sharp cut Friday in the acreage available for oil shale and tar sands leasing in the West, including a 90 percent reduction of potential land in Colorado.

The BLM’s proposal is a thorough overhaul of the Bush-era leasing inventory: it slashes shale from 1.9 million acres to 462,000 and sands from 431,000 acres to 91,000.

Oil shale is found in northwestern Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah and it contains an organic precursor to oil called kerogen. Despite decades of attempts, oil shale has never proven commercially viable. Squeezing fuel from the rock requires copious quantities of water and heating the shale underground to something above 700 degrees over a period of several years. Everything that must go into oil shale production is considered far more environmentally harmful than the production of conventional oil.

“While I have long felt there is potential for oil shale development, it is critical that a number of unanswered questions be resolved before commercial-scale leasing takes place,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, said in a prepared statement. “Fully understanding the demands of oil shale development on Colorado’s water and local communities is essential to ensuring responsible development.”

Last year, the BLM announced it would reconsider the Bush-era land leasing plan as part of a settlement of a lawsuit by environmental groups in 2009 that challenged the 2008 action.

“For the sportsmen, farmers, ranchers and communities on the Western Slope that depend on clean air and clean water, making sure development is done right the first time is vital to their way of life,” said Udall, noting that the BLM will be accepting public comment on its plan for the next 90 days.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, issued a statement reminding residents of “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, when Exxon’s massive Colony oil shale project went bust on the state’s Western Slope.

Udall and Bennet
“In Colorado, we have seen what can happen when we rush into oil shale development,” Bennet said. “We need to be certain we can do this in an environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable way– particularly with regard to water, which is critical to farmers, ranchers and the economies of western communities. Secretary Salazar’s announcement marks a balanced and prudent next step in our efforts to ensure that any commercial oil shale development is done in a thoughtful manner. An emphasis on continued research is entirely appropriate in advance of crafting any commercial development guidelines that continue to protect our natural resources and provide a fair return to American taxpayers in the process.”

Rep. Lamborn
The BLM plan comes just two days after U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, watched his proposal to usher in the 2008 Bush-era oil shale leasing plan pass the GOP-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Oil shale is one of the most promising new sources of American-made energy and the United States is fortunate to have an abundance of oil shale resources, including in Colorado,” Lamborn said.

Environmentalists and others immediately panned Lamborn’s bill.

“We already face a water shortage in the West that threatens farmers and ranchers,” said Bill Midcap of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “We simply cannot gamble away our water on oil shale speculation at the risk of losing our farming and ranching economy that we depend upon for our food and fiber. … We should use existing research and development projects to determine how much water will be needed before we consider commercial leasing of oil shale.”

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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