Interior Department Finishes Look-Before-You-Leap Oil Shale Plan

In a sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s eager embrace of commercial oil

shale development, the Department of Interior today unveiled a final plan that calls for careful research into the feasibility and environmental issues surrounding oil shale, and opens about only half as much federal lands to potential leasing for commercial development.

“This plan maintains a strong focus on research and development to promote new technologies that may eventually lead to safe and responsible commercial development of these domestic energy resources,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in announcing the final plans. “It will help ensure that we acquire critically important information about these technologies and their potential effects on the landscape, especially our scarce water resources in the West.”

Oil shale, not to be confused with shale oil in places like North Dakota which is actual oil trapped in underground rock formations, is actually a sedimentary rock containing kerogen. It must be heated and put under high pressure, either underground or after being mined and brought to the surface, to produce a petroleum liquid. Successful commercialization of oil shale in the U.S. has been an unrealized dream for many decades.


The Obama administration plan finalized today makes available about 700,000 acres of land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for potential oil shale leasing. That compares to 1,340,774 acres in the Bush plan.

One of the key controversies surrounding oil shale development in arid areas of the West that are already being hit hard by drought is its high water demands. The Government Accountability Office in 2010 estimated that oil shale development could require between one barrel and 12 barrels of water for each barrel of oil. The agency said more precise estimates were not possible because the technologies are so unproven.

“Rather than gamble our water on costly oil shale speculation, this plan protects our farms and our food,” said Bill Midcap of the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union.

— Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund

Related Post: