Westerners Praise Salazar Plan to Protect Water from Costly Oil Shale Speculation

Final plan and new commercial rulemaking maintain smart approach to oil shale research

03-22-2013 // Judith Kohler
An oil shale test site on private land in northwest Colorado

Westerners praised the Salazar oil shale plan released by the Interior Department today for its smart approach to protecting water and local communities from costly oil shale speculation.

“We commend Secretary Salazar for developing a commonsense plan that makes public land available for research but requires results and environmental safeguards before any commercial leasing can proceed,’’ said Michael Saul, attorney with the National Wildlife Federation. “This new plan aims to ensure that we won’t risk precious water, air quality, fish, wildlife and the regional economies that depend on those resources on a gamble that might never pay off.”

The plan requires that companies conduct successful research operations of oil shale and prove oil shale’s economic viability before the Bureau of Land Management will consider commercial development. Companies will also be required to put proper safeguards in place to protect water supplies, land, wildlife, air quality and local economies.

“Secretary Salazar has brought common sense to oil shale, something we value out here in the West,” said Bill Midcap, with the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union. “Rather than gamble our water on costly oil shale speculation, this plan protects our farms and our food.”

This type of research-first approach has been backed by a wide array of interests including more than 100 business leaders, farmers and ranchers, water experts, and local sportsmen groups as well as local elected leaders, water providers and national sportsmen groups.

“Today’s announcement is good news for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and associated businesses in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming,” said Jason Keith with the Outdoor Alliance. “Salazar’s smart, research-first approach will protect western rivers like the Colorado and the outfitting businesses that depend on healthy public lands.”

However, Keith cautioned that the plan allows for oil shale research and tar sands extraction on more than 800,000 acres of public lands. Areas such as the San Rafael Swell, which is highly valued for climbing and canyoneering as well as by outfitters, could unfortunately see negative impacts.

In addition to finalizing what lands are available for oil shale research and tar sands, the Interior Department announced draft commercial rules which will also consider a new royalty rate for oil shale. The original 2008 rule had set a royalty rate less than half that of conventional oil and gas development.

Those funds are split between federal and state governments. Local communities typically receive those funds to help offset infrastructure costs associated with energy speculation such as roads, schools, police and fire departments.

"The City of Rifle has a long standing position that commercial leasing should not occur until the RD&D leases can prove oil shale can be a commercially-viable fuel source that can be developed responsibly with minimal impacts on the landscape, wildlife habitat, water, and other natural resources,” said Rifle City Councilor Keith Lambert. “The City of Rifle appreciates that attention has been given to these concerns as the impacts of oil shale development have been and will be felt in this community and others.”

Oil shale is not oil. It is a rock containing kerogen (or fossilized algae) which must be heated to 700 degrees or more over a period of months or even years in order to be processed into oil.

Despite more than a century of attempts and billions risked in taxpayer subsidies and private investments, oil companies have failed to create a commercial oil shale industry.

Both energy and water demands for processing could be enormous, with the Government Accountability Office and even industry experts noting that demand could be as much as 140 percent the amount that Denver Water provides to its customers each year.

The West is currently experiencing a two-year drought – the worst seen in a decade. Major new demands for water, such as what oil shale could require, would create enormous pressure on the Colorado River and western drinking water supplies.