Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The energy bill that passed in the House last night also permits forward movement on commercial oil-shale development, a provision added to the legislation on Monday.

The provision repeals the current moratorium on finalizing regulations regarding oil-shale production, and would allow states to decide whether or not to permit oil-shale development on federal lands within their borders. The measure would affect the Green River Basin area of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, which could hold up to 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Environmental groups have expressed concern that commercial-scale production would be detrimental to land and wildlife, and would strain water resources in those states. The Bureau of Land Management’s authorized pilot projects have not progressed far enough to determine whether the technology can be feasibly scaled to commercial levels, said groups working in the states, and the impact on the local environment have not been adequately studied. They also expressed concern that oil shale is more CO2-intensive than conventional drilling and gasoline production.

“While the House bill takes positive steps on renewable energy and energy-efficient buildings, those provisions are outweighed by a last-minute change lifting a longstanding prohibition on commercial oil-shale leasing,” said Adam Kolton, National Wildlife Federation’s senior director of congressional and federal affairs. “Much of the public attention around congressional energy bills has been focused on offshore oil leasing provisions, but oil shale is an unconscionable environmental threat.”

NWF President Larry Schweiger wrote an open letter [PDF] to representatives yesterday condemning the oil-shale provision. “The United States cannot change course on its rising global warming pollution levels while quintupling the CO in our tanks,” wrote Schweiger.

Oil shale was first touted as a solution to energy prices during the oil crisis of the 1970s, but companies largely abandoned the process in the 1980s after oil prices dropped and the resource-intensive process of oil-shale extraction became cost prohibitive. Many in the states involved are concerned about a repeat of the ’80s bust, and about the water and energy resources that would be needed to make the technology work.

Oil shale as an energy source resurfaced over the summer when the Bush administration moved forward with regulations on commercial development. Currently, a moratorium on finalizing those regulations blocks further movement, but that moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month. In anticipation of that moratorium expiring, the Bureau of Land Management on Sept. 4 finalized plans to open 1.9 million acres of public lands to oil-shale development.

The current moratorium barring the federal government from issuing final rules for commercial oil-shale production was inserted into an omnibus spending bill last year by Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (D), who continues to oppose moving forward on oil-shale development until the effects are better understoof.

“The BLM itself has said that we are still years away from even knowing whether oil-shale development will be possible on a commercial scale. They also report that they have no idea how much power would be required or what effect commercial oil-shale development would have on Western water supplies,” said Salazar in early September. “If we rush ahead without having the answers to these questions, we only risk another oil-shale bust and we put our precious water supplies at risk.” (See also a July op-ed in The Washington Post by Salazar.)

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) have also expressed concern about commercial production moving forward on federal lands within their states without adequate attention being given to their concerns, arguing it would be misguided and premature to move forward on commercial oil-shale production at this point. Under the House bill passed late Tuesday, the governors and legislatures in these states would need to enact a law approving of federal oil-shale leasing in their states.

“It’s an unproven technology with unknowable environmental impacts,” said Kate Zimmerman, a policy specialist in NWF’s Colorado office. “It’s a concern for us. We don’t think oil shale is ready for prime time.”

Others in the environmental community have worried that concentration on expanding the development of resources like oil shale is a distraction from enacting sustainable energy policies.

“Instead of gambling our resources on unproven fuel sources, such as oil shale, we should invest in proven options that will reduce prices such as higher fuel-economy standards, energy efficiency, and renewable generation technologies,” said Chase Huntley, energy policy adviser for The Wilderness Society in a statement earlier this summer.