GLENWOOD SPRINGS - The debate over oil shale development edged closer to the front burner of national energy policy on Friday, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released formal guidelines concerning how much federal land will be available for research, demonstration and development projects.The new plan, outlined in a formal "Record of Decision" or ROD, formalizes a proposal from November 2012 to make 678,000 acres of public land in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah available for research, demonstration and development projects, or RD&D, and roughly 130,000 acres of land in Utah available for such projects on tar sands leases.That is down considerably from the approximately two million acres of public lands opened up for oil shale development by the Bush administration in 2008.According to the ROD, more than 1.3 million acres included in the Bush-era plan have been removed from consideration for oil shale leasing and development, based on such issues as potential for wilderness designation, protection for greater sage-grouse habitat, and protection for other "areas of critical environmental concern" as identified in federal regulations.Glenn Vawter, director of the National Oil Shale Association, said the announcement is a confirmation that Colorado "took the biggest hit" in terms of reducing the amount of land open to oil shale research.Vawter noted that the 2008 guidelines called for 360,000 new acres to be opened up for oil shale, where the announcement on Friday cut it down to 26,000 new acres.Four energy companies - Shell, American Soda (AMSO), Exxon and Natural Soda - currently hold six leases between them. A fifth lease, held by Chevron, is inactive while the company backs off from oil shale development.According a summary statement on the BLM website (www.blm.gov) regarding Friday's announcement, any lands still open for oil shale development "would first be available for RD&D leases," under which energy companies must prove that their technology for extracting the "oil" from the rock is viable, economically and environmentally.Only after accomplishing that, according to the ROD, would a company be eligible for commercial oil shale leases.The ROD also calls for careful analysis of the potential social and economic impacts of a commercial oil shale industry, as well as of the true amount of water use such an industry might entail.Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing an organic compound called kerogen, and is different from what is known as "shale oil."When extracted from the surrounding rock, kerogen can be processed using extremely high heat and pressure to yield a petroleum-like liquid.Efforts to extract shale from oil go back more than a century in Colorado, most recently in the form of an oil shale boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s that went bust on May, 2, 1982, when the Exxon energy company pulled the plug on its oil shale project.Friday's announcement was met with cautious enthusiasm by representatives of environmental, recreation and agriculture groups, who said the plan shows Salazar's willingness to consider other aspects of the oil shale debate than simply the desires of the industry."We want to make sure that potential impacts from development of this resource ... are understood before major allocations of public lands are made," said Michael Saul, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation."We think oil shale would be a big gamble with our water and our public lands," agreed Bill Midcap of the Rocky Mountain Farmer's Union, who praised Salazar "because he's brought a lot of common sense to oil shale, something that we need more of our here in the West."Ashley Korenblat, past president of the International Mountain Biking Association and an outfitter in Utah, noted that the recreation industry generates $30 billion in revenues, and some 300,000 jobs, in the three states."We don't want to jeopardize those revenues," she said, adding that there are no guarantees that oil shale development could or would generate similar financial effects on local towns in the region.
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