BLM issues draft programmatic EIS for western oil shale, tar sands

The US Bureau of Land Management published a draft programmatic environmental impact statement and possible land use amendments for federally administered oil shale and tar sands acreage in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. It also opened a 90-day comment period on the proposals on Feb. 3.

The draft PEIS analyzes several land allocation and resource management alternatives, the US Department of the Interior agency noted. It said if it decides to adopt the preferred alternative, 461,965 acres would be available for research and development of oil shale (35,308 acres in Colorado, 252,181 acres in Utah, and 174,476 acres in Wyoming), and 91,045 acres in eastern Utah would be available for tar sands-related activities.

“Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use, and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil shale development, we are proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity,” BLM Director Robert V. Abbey said. “If oil shale is to be viable on a commercial scale, we must take a common-sense approach that encourages research and development first.”

BLM said in addition, after the Government Accountability Office determined that water demand for oil shale resource development in the three states and other critical questions remain unanswered, the US Geological Survey will analyze baseline water resource conditions to improve understanding of groundwater and surface water systems which could be affected.

One oil and gas industry association was immediately critical. “Within a week of encouraging an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, the administration continues to introduce actions that delay and restrict development,” an American Petroleum Institute spokesman said. “There has to be certainty, and the BLM draft plan is not conducive to an operating environment that encourages investment. The administration is continuing actions that send negative signals to industry and capital markets at exactly the wrong time for the American public.”

‘Wrong direction’

The US Chamber of Commerce also responded negatively. “On the same day that we saw increasing momentum in the labor market, the administration is again saying ‘no’ to more energy production and ‘no’ to more jobs,” said Karen A. Harbert, president of the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. “This proposal will dramatically decrease the amount of public lands available for energy development. This is a step in the wrong direction and flies in the face of the claims made by the president in the state of the union address regarding his support for domestic energy production.”

BLM said any new land allocation decisions made on the basis of the Final PEIS would replace land allocation decisions made in 2008 which proposed making up to 2 million acres of public lands available for commercial oil shale leasing in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, and 431,000 acres available for tar sands leasing in Utah.

The agency said that it agreed to reconsider the matter after some communities in the region argued that the 2008 PEIS and Record of Decision would have prematurely allowed commercial leasing without technologies having been proven viable and without a clear understanding of impacts on scarce western water supplies.

Comments will be accepted until May 4, according to BLM. It said that it also plans to hold public meetings on the matter in Rifle, Colo.; Rock Springs, Wyo.; Vernal, Utah; and Salt Lake City, and will announce dates and locations at least 15 days in advance.

Contact Nick Snow at

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