Conservation groups challenge latest BLM oil shale plan

Conservation groups have challenged a new BLM plan for oil shale leasing.

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.


One thought on “Conservation groups challenge latest BLM oil shale plan

  1. I agree that the time has come to take action to define a holistic program of carbon management. I disagree that this means we should stop new developments because they COULD have impacts. The appropriate place for addressing potential impacts is in the now duplicative environmental assessments that must be done for each project. When this country addresses carbon management on a national level, it will automatically address it for oil shale, which may have slightly higher than average carbon impacts. The water impacts have been blown out of proportion by using outdated information from a non-technical document.

    The quotation from me was not quite correct. I pointed out that more than 90% of the richest oil shale resource (in the Piceance Basin in Colorado) has been removed from consideration. The Administration’s punitive plan restricts this still further in Colorado, removing 93% of the richest oil shale from consideration. It does increase the available land in Utah and Wyoming, which hold only a small part of the richest resource. The BLM did not use the recently available data from the USGS to evaluate the quality of the expanded offerings (although it stated that these new data were a central reason for revisiting the PEIS), so we don’t know if the additional acreage was more sub-economic oil shale land as was true for much of the acreage in the previous draft version.

    The BLM never intended to put the larger acreage proposed under the Bush administration into a single lease sale. Their process is far more careful than that. As a reviewer for the previous RD&D lease applications, I have seen their technical review process in action. Those controls are certainly adequate to manage a careful leasing program without ensuring six more years of regulation, litigation, and political lobbying by opponents for each 25,000 acres finally made available for consideration in Colorado. I find it is never wise to bet on the Federal Government moving too fast. The current program does not encourage sustainable development of oil shale, and the administration has signaled it intends to continue to restrict availability of oil shale land. Their pro-choice policies apparently do not carry over into the energy arena.

    Conservation groups that claim oil shale is dirtier than coal, or that it will use vast amounts of water have never presented their calculations at the Oil Shale Symposia held in Colorado every year, and hence should not be given a great deal of technical credibility. Available technical results indicate that oil shale production is significantly less water intensive than biofuel production, and should therefore be given at least equal consideration in Colorado’s energy mix.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s