Commercial development still years away; water a huge issue
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Facing a couple of lawsuits and a slew of questions from communities in oil-shale country, the Department of Interior this week announced that it will take a new, hard look at commercial oil shale plans and regulations issued under the Bush administration.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said commercial oil shale technologies are still years away, and said the government will develop plans that ensure a fair return to American taxpayers.
If needed, the rules will be updated based on new research and technology — and to account for the massive amounts of water required to develop oil shale on a commercial scale. The Government Accountability Office recently issued a report calling for more detailed studies of water issues related to oil shale development.
“For more than a century, and through many busts, we in the West have been trying to unlock oil shale resources to help power our country,” said Secretary Salazar. “If we are to succeed this time, we must continue to encourage (research and development), determine whether the technologies would be viable on a commercial scale, and find a way to develop the resources in a way that protects water supplies in the arid West,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a press release.
And while some conservation groups have called for an end to research and development leasing, Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey said his agency is “committed to helping companies determine whether they can develop the resource commercially and to pin down water and power needs, as well as other environmental effects, including impacts to wildlife habitat.
“I think the steps are appropriate and an acknowledgment that the 2008 rules are based on outdated information,” said Jim Spehar, a former Grand Junction mayor and Mesa County commissioner who also did consulting work for Shell Oil for about six years.
Spehar, who serves on a working group to give input on oil shale development plans, is focused on potential community and environmental impacts. He said that, agency and company plans for oil shale have to consider how they will affect schools, roads, health care and natural resources.
Under the existing research leases, most of the focus has been on science and technology.
“There’s been vey little work on community and wildlife impacts,” he said.
“What I’m really worried about is a crisis in the Middle East that would affect the supply of oil,” he said. That could trigger a full-bore oil shale rush, something that communities in the region are not prepared for right now.
Spehar said that, from what he can see, there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress on the technical side either.
“When I started doing work for them, it was on a 10-year timeline. They (industry) were saying, it’ll be ready for commercial development in about 10 years. Well, I heard them say the same thing last fall,” he said. “But there is so much shale, it’s hard to imagine it won’t be developed at some point.”
Whether or not that’s the case depends who you ask. Pavel Bujak, who was an information specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy, the entire effort is a sham. Bujak said there’s no way oil shale can be developed commercially anytime in the foreseeable future.
“It’s time to move on and admit that oil shale is not a feasible alternative,” Bujak said.
It’s been a few years since he spent time on-site at an oil-shale test site, but the industry is still running into the same problems.
“As soon as we started heating the shale, it all blocked up,” he said, succinctly describing the challenges of trying to wring oil from stone.
If the oil companies ever move beyond the research phase, there are still significant unanswered questions about environmental impacts in northwestern Colorado and southern Wyoming, where the oil shale deposits overlap with critical winter range for deer and elk.
“I don’t think we know much space it will take, and we don’t know if it’s technically feasible yet,” said Suzanne O’Neill, director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. Some maps suggest that commercial development in the Piceance Basin alone would require 25,000 acres of leasing in an area that’s already over-run by gas-drilling operations, with significant impacts to deer and elk winter range.
“When you overlay the existing gas lease maps with the oil shale formations and wildlife habitats, it adds up to some real problems,” O’Neil said. “I think they’ve some very important questions that need to be answered,” she concluded, referring to the federal government’s announcement on oil shale development plans.