BLM begins review of oil shale development in Rockies
December 19, 2005
DENVER – The Bureau of Land Management has launched an environmental review intended to guide oil shale development on huge stretches of federal land in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah over the next several years.The BLM, which oversees millions of acres in the three states, has 18 months to gather public comments and complete an environmental impact statement. The push, mandated in a federal energy bill, comes more than two decades after the first oil-shale boom busted, leaving western Colorado’s economy reeling for years.Soaring oil prices and demand are behind the revived interest in trying to tap the large reserves of oil trapped in rock and sand.Colorado BLM state chief Sally Wisely said Monday the public meetings that start Jan. 10 and the comment period will allow the agency to consider the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of development while giving the country a chance to reap the benefits of “energy availability, reliability and security.”The BLM will conduct a programmatic environmental review, meaning that it will be an overview of various issues rather than a study of a specific project at specific site. The Interior Department estimates there are about 16,000 square miles of oil shale lands, or more than 10 million acres, in western Colorado, northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming.Environmentalists and a county commissioner in western Colorado said it’s important for the public to weigh in on development that could have profound effects in a region already undergoing widespread natural gas drilling.”One of the more troubling things is there isn’t really any technology in place that works for extracting oil shale,” said Matt Sura of the Western Colorado Congress, a conservation group. “They’re looking at these impacts in the dark.”Shell Exploration & Production Co. is trying to free the oil from shale at a site in Rio Blanco County by using heating rods drilled into rock. The company, however, figures it is about five years away from proving the technology or deciding whether to build a commercial-scale operation.Sura said he believes the potential environmental impacts would be more extreme than those from conventional oil and gas development because of the large amounts of water and energy needed to process oil shale. He said extracting the oil could require large open-pit mines and disposal of “a tremendous amount of waste rock.”A study released in August by the RAND Corp. cited some of the same concerns. The report, sponsored in part by the Energy Department, said while the economic benefits could be great, significant environmental problems could occur.People who lived through the oil shale bust of the 1980s are leery of the kind of economic devastation that occurred when the fledgling industry failed despite huge government subsidies. They refer to “Black Sunday,” when Exxon closed its $5 billion oil shale project near Parachute on May 2, 1982, putting 2,200 people out of work.”To avoid another social and economic catastrophe in the western region rich in oil shale, impacted stakeholders need to be involved from the beginning in this federal process to ensure that all sides and views are fully heard, understood, analyzed and considered,” Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt said.Kathy Hall of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, said a lot has changed since the 1980s. She said she expects energy companies to be more careful this time, in part because private funds will be fueling the operations.Congress created the Synthetic Fuels Corp. in the 1970s to find more domestic sources of oil after oil prices shot up and appropriated billions of dollars for development.”I also think local communities are a lot better prepared this time,” said Hall, a former Mesa County commissioners.