by Tom Kenworthy
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has completed its final environmental review of the amount of federal land designated for research and development of oil shale and tar sands in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The final programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) published late last week would make almost 700,000 acres in the three states available for research and development of oil shale, and another 130,000 acres in Utah available for potential leasing and development of tar sands.
That is a significant reduction from actions taken in the final days of the Bush administration that would have expedited commercial development for oil shale on nearly 2 million acres in the three states. But it is more expansive than the Obama administration’s draft environmental review completed last February, which allocated about 462,000 acres for oil shale and 91,000 acres for tar sands.
Sometimes confused with shale oil – actual crude oil trapped in sedimentary rock – oil shale is a rock that contains kerogen, an organic material produces hydrocarbons when heated at high temperatures. Tar sands are sedimentary deposits that contain bitumen, a hydrocarbon that can be refined into oil. They are one of the dirtiest and most environmentally destructive fossil fuels.
The BLM’s plan, which Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) said was a more “measured” approach to providing land for these resources, excludes environmentally sensitive areas, including those with wilderness characteristics and habitat for sage grouse.
The BLM directive would first open lands for what are known as research, demonstration and development leases and set certain requirements before they could become full commercial development leases.
David Abelson, who works on oil shale issues for Western Resource Advocates, told E&E the decision is “mixed” – requiring research before commercial development, but still opening vast tracts of federal lands for potential development.
And if one takes the International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook seriously, developing these extremely dirty resources at all is a poor use of land. According to the IEA, we need to keep two thirds of fossil fuel resources in the ground in order to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees C.
The local environmental impact is also substantial. Oil shale is a longstanding pipe dream of western energy developers, who despite considerable effort, have yet to prove it is commercially viable. According to a Government Accounting Office study and other reports, production could severely stress western water supplies already strained by population growth and climate change. In addition, a recent report by Western Resource Advocates predicts that development of oil shale would exacerbate air pollution problems in the West.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund