Reactions mixed as BLM issues EIS for oil shale

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 8 -- The US Bureau of Land Management issued a final programmatic environmental impact statement Sept. 4 to guide the use of public land containing oil shale and tar sands in three western states. Reactions ranged from applause to expressions of concern.

The document, which BLM developed under Section 369[d] of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, amends 12 land-use plans in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to set aside 1.9 million acres of public land for potential commercial oil shale development, the US Department of the Interior agency indicated.

One of the next steps would be to complete rules to govern procedures for issuing leases, but Congress placed a moratorium in the fiscal 2008 DOI appropriation directing BLM not to finalize such a regulation, it continued.

US President George W. Bush has urged Congress to lift the moratorium so the agency can prepare final regulations for a program that would improve the nation's energy security, BLM Director James L. Caswell said. "The goal is to promote economically viable and environmentally sound production of oil shale on western lands where we estimate deposits hold the equivalent of 800 billion bbl of oil, enough to meet [current] US demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years," he declared.

Most US oil shale deposits are in the Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, according to BLM. The programmatic EIS identifies the most geologically promising areas on federal land in the three states, which would be open to applications for commercial leasing, it said.

BLM indicated that it would wait at least 60 days after publication of the final programmatic EIS in the Sept. 5 Federal Register before signing and issuing a record of decision approving the land-use plan amendments.

Cheers, criticism
Utah's two Republican US senators each greeted BLM's step with cheers as Colorado's Democratic governor and a major national environmental organization condemned it. A member of the state's congressional delegation said the programmatic EIS provides important information about potential resources and developmental impacts, which also shows why any further steps toward leasing should be gradual.

"A lot of folks have been armchair quarterbacking on the environmental aspects of oil shale development in this country. Now, we have the official word from the actual experts on how the environment can be protected during oil shale development," said Orrin G. Hatch, Utah's senior US senator.

Robert B. Bennett, the state's junior senator, noted that the programmatic EIS's preferred alternative would exclude 305,000 acres of BLM-managed federal land in the potential development area. Leasing would not be allowed in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, areas of critical environmental concern closed to mineral leasing, and similarly designated areas, he said.

"The only obstacle standing in the way of producing more American oil through this abundant resource is Congress. As a senator from an oil shale state, I will continue to fight this legislative battle to repeal the moratorium on oil shale," Bennett said.

Colorado's governor took a different view. "With the Department of [the] Interior's action today, the federal government has once again failed to act as a responsible partner for Colorado. The Bush administration is engaging in last minute maneuvering in its waning days rather than developing a comprehensive, meaningful, and responsible long-term energy policy for America's future," said Bill Ritter Jr.

Short-sighted, premature
"Finalizing an environmental impact statement without any clear understanding of the environmental, community, economic and energy impacts of commercial-scale oil shale development is irresponsible, short-sighted, and premature. This does nothing to address [gasoline] prices at the pump today and has the potential to do much more harm than good," he continued.

Chase Huntley, energy policy advisor for the Wilderness Society, agreed. "The administration and its boosters in Congress are pushing the promise of oil shale in the hope of scoring political points by leading Americans to believe it will lower today's high energy prices. It will not. Putting politics ahead of responsible governance could cause more harm that good," he said.

"In fact, this reckless hurtle toward oil shale development puts thousands of residents of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming at risk of an economic catastrophe not seen since the Black Sunday collapse of the Colony oil shale project in 1982. This move also promises significant and potentially devastating environmental consequences for nearly 2 million acres of western public lands," Huntley warned.

US Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), running to succeed the state's senior US senator Wayne Allard, who is retiring, said he welcomes BLM's publication of the programmatic EIS. "I think it shows why we should proceed carefully, with priority on the research and development program, before rushing to full-scale commercial leasing and development with all its effects on our lands, air, and above all, the scarce water supplies so important to the Western Slope," he said.

Udall's opponent is Robert W. Schaffer, who served three terms as a US House member from Colorado's fourth district during 1997-2003. He supports responsible oil shale resource development, according to information on his campaign website.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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