SILT, CO — There were no chairs at the Bureau of Land Management’s only Colorado public meeting on its oil-shale draft plan, and that was no accident.
The last thing agency officials wanted was a forum for disgruntled Western Slope residents to air their grievances about the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on oil shale, which has generated alarm over its drastic cutbacks in leasing acreage.
Instead of an open microphone, there was a revolving power-point presentation. Instead of chairs, there were posters on easels offering details of the Draft PEIS. Instead of public testimony, there were one-one-one conversations with agency officials.
Mitchell Leverette, chief of the BLM’s Solid Mineral Division, acknowledged the shift in the agency’s approach by alluding to a 2011 meeting that resulted in agency officials being town-halled by animated locals.
“We share your commitment to making sure we do not repeat the negative aspects of that experience,” said Leverette in remarks at the start of the meeting.
As it turned out, Leverette had little to worry about. Most of the roughly 75 constituents who attended the meeting at the BLM River Valley Field Office here had ties to environmental groups and tended to support the agency’s effort to restrict the energy industry’s access to oil shale.
The Draft PEIS offers four options, but the agency’s preferred alternative would slice the acreage available for oil-shale research and development from 2 million to a half-million acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. In Colorado, developers would have access to just 35,308 acres, with 252,181 acres in Utah and 174,476 acres in Wyoming.
“In Colorado, it really is a drastic reduction,” said Leverette.
That was fine with Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, who called the preferred alternative “the common-sense approach.”
“We’ve advocated getting the research on these leases first,” said O’Neill. “We need a lot of research on federal public lands and the water impacts before doing any commercial development.”
Michael Clark of Natural Soda said he saw commercial oil-shale development as a “win-win,” given the advances in extraction technology and the region’s vast oil-shale and tar-sands reserves, which have been described as greater than those in the Middle East.
“Personally, I think the resources are there, and they can be developed without significant environmental impact, and they ought to be,” said Clark. “Look at the price of gas.”
Others said the promise of an economic boom to struggling Western Slope communities wasn’t worth the potential harm to the area’s natural splendor.
“We live in a pretty place. It’s why people live here and visit here,” said Ella Hunt of Pitkin County. “The water and air are pure and it’s staggeringly beautiful. Once they get the trucks going through here, that scarring never goes away.”
The BLM has three more meetings in Utah and Wyoming scheduled before the 90-day comment period expires May 4. A final decision on the Draft PEIS is expected in October.
There was a sense among critics that the public meetings may be purely for show, given the administration’s moves to promote renewable energy while reining in fossil-fuel development on federal land. They point out that none of the cooperating agencies endorsed the most restrictive of the four proposed alternatives, and yet that was the one selected by the BLM.
Leverette noted that the cooperating agencies, which included state and county governments, “are just cooperators—we do not have to go with their recommendation.”
BLM officials insisted that the public comments would be considered in the final decision. Additional weight will be given to substantive comments that offer new information, analysis or alternatives, as opposed to those that advocate a particular position without providing supporting data, they said.
“Don’t think your comments will not matter,” said Leverette. “They will be addressed.”