Groups say feds ignored climate impacts in environmental studies for plan
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Framed in the context of growing concern about global warming, the Center for Biological Diversity this week formally protested the latest scaled-back plan for oil shale and tar sands research and development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
The Grand Canyon Trust, Living Rivers and the Sierra Club also joined in the protest, claiming the plan could unleash intensive greenhouse gas emissions, hasten the dry-up of the Colorado River, threaten wildlife and increase local and regional air pollution.
The protest is part of the formal BLM review and approval process, similar to an appeal of a U.S. Forest Service decision. The conservation groups claim that the BLM violated numerous provisions of various federal environmental laws and planning rules.
The BLM plan released last month calls for careful leasing of about 806,000 acres of public land where energy companies can try to solve the puzzle of in-situ development of oil shale. The 2012 plan resulted from the settlement of a 2009 lawsuit that challenged a previous version approved under the Bush administration that was criticized by conservation groups as a give-away to the energy industry.
Some advocates of careful oil shale research say the 2012 plan cut too much land, making it more difficult for energy companies to pursue oil shale development.
“Putting restrictions on the land doesn’t make a lot of sense to me … it would be better to let the companies decided what the best place is to operate,” said Colorado School of Mines professor Jeremy Boak, who specializes in oil shale research. “The restrictions seem extreme. Ninety percent of the land that has oil shale was taken out of play,” he said.
But for the Center for Biological Diversity, the issues are bigger than just identifying appropriate lands for leasing. Pursuing any fossil fuel development, especially oil shale and tar sands, is simply the wrong course, said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center.
McKinnon said his organization doesn’t think that oil shale development can be reconciled with federal environmental laws requiring the BLM “to take a hard look at the indirect effects of reasonably foreseeable activities, including greenhouse gas and other emissions resulting from refining and end-use combustion of mined oil.”
“The climate crisis is worsening every day. The last thing we need is to destroy our public lands for carbon-intensive oil shale and tar-sands mining,” McKinnon said. “This plan’s water use and greenhouse gas emissions would be ruinous for public land, the already-drying Colorado River, endangered species and efforts to curb global warming.”
The protested plan allocates more than 676,000 acres of land to oil shale development and more than 129,000 acres to tar sands. It subjects oil-mining projects to additional review not included in the Bush administration’s plan.
While it reduces the acreage from the Bush administration’s 2008 plan, it increased allocations from what was proposed in a 2012 draft environmental impact statement. Acres allocated for oil shale development increased by 46 percent since the draft plan; acres for tar sands increased by 42 percent.
Conservation groups say that producing oil from shale or tar sands can be dirtier than coal given the energy required to extract the oil. They are also concerned about impacts to stream flows in the Colorado River and its tributaries, as well as potential impacts wildlife, including some endangered species.
The center’s protest makes it clear that the challenge to this plan is part of the larger battle over climate change and energy policy.
“Further development of greenhouse gas-intensive energy sources, including oil shale, tar-sands and coal-fired power plants is incompatible with achieving this goal. If greenhouse gas emissions are not immediately reduced, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level will rise to approximately 500 ppm by mid-century, escalating wildlife extinctions, catastrophic weather and ecosystem changes and tragic human suffering,” the center wrote in a press release announcing the challenge.