DENVER, CO – The Bureau of Land Management holds its first public meeting on its oil-shale draft plan today, but you don’t have to be a rock scientist to figure out how the debate will shake out.
Supporters of oil-shale development – which include energy companies, Republicans and fans of economic growth – oppose the BLM’s Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). And that’s putting it mildly.
Many feel betrayed by the Obama administration for scrapping the then-newly adopted 2008 Resource Management Plan in the face of environmental lawsuits. After redoing the entire process, the BLM then chose as its preferred alternative the most restrictive of the four proposed options – none of which was endorsed by the 14 cooperating agencies involved in the process.
Under the BLM’s preferred alternative, the amount of federal land available for research and development of oil shale and tar sands would plummet from 2 million acres under the 2008 plan to about 500,000 acres.
As far as many critics are concerned, the outcome was preordained. “It’s basically been said that the order [to choose the most restrictive plan] came from an authority much higher than the BLM,” said Brad McCloud, executive director of the Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale in Grand Junction.
“I think that’s consistent with the policies that seem to be coming out of the administration with regard to non-renewable fossil fuels and their development,” said McCloud.
Meanwhile, environmental groups have ramped up their objections to oil-shale development. The Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates released a report March 7 calling for the industry to cut its losses on “unproven” oil-shale exploration and instead invest in “clean energy solutions.”
“Instead of pouring more money into oil shale and turning over vast natural resources to this questionable effort, Congress and the states should support and prioritize investment in clean and sustainable energy sources with a proven track record of success, while exploring new sources that have a far lower environmental impact than oil shale,” said the 48-page report, entitled “Oil Shale 2050.”
The anti-exploration lobby received a boost when Chevron announced March 1 that it had given up its oil-shale research, development and demonstration [RDD] lease in the Piceance Basin in Colorado. While Chevron only had three employees working on the project, environmentalists trumpeted the decision as evidence that oil-shale RDD holds no commercial promise.
“Oil companies have been trying to pull the sword from the stone for nearly a century,” said Matt Garrington, co-director of the Checks and Balances Project, in a statement. “Oil shale has no King Arthur.”
The administration argues that the reduction in lease acreage is appropriate, given that U.S. oil-shale production is still years off. “We’re very far away from viable oil-shale production right now,” said one administration official.
But development proponents call that a self-fulfilling prophecy, saying that the shifting regulatory climate and lukewarm federal commitment make it difficult for energy companies to invest the time and capital necessary to make oil shale a commercial success.
Already countries like Estonia, China, Russia and Israel are developing oil shale as a marketable energy resource.
“It’s not just a passing fad,” said McCloud. “The reason we haven’t been able to go forward is the regulatory framework–the rules of the game keep changing, and if you keep changing the rules, of course it’s not going to take off.”
That may have been why Chevron decided to divest, he said. “Many feel the PEIS was the last straw, the reason Chevron decided to pull out,” said McCloud. “‘Really? You’re going to change the rules again?’”
The BLM is holding four public meetings as part of its 90-day comment period on the Draft PEIS. The one Colorado meeting is slated for March 12 at the BLM River Valley office in Silt, with the other meetings scheduled for Utah and Wyoming. The comment period ends May 4, with the agency scheduled to issue a decision in October.
Most Colorado Republicans hold little hope that the BLM will open up more public land for development, which is why they’re taking matters into their own hands. The House approved Feb. 16 the PIONEERS Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, which would restore the oil-shale acreage approved under the 2008 Resource Management Plan.
“The Obama administration’s no-energy policies have caused energy prices to skyrocket in this country,” said Lamborn after the bill’s passage. “It is time we begin accessing our vast American energy reserves. This bill ensures we do so in a responsible way, that in the long term, will help increase energy production, and bring down energy costs.”