Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Utah: BLM sets environmental rules for tar sands & shale energy

BLM sets environmental rules for shale energy
Utah Republicans praise the action, but actual development of the lands likely far in the future
By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake Tribune 09/06/2008

Utah's Uinta Basin holds a lot of oil shale and some tar sands, but what it will take to turn that potential into petroleum remains a question with no easy answers or time frame.
But Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett praised the federal Bureau of Land Management, which released a multiyear study Friday that sets environmental rules for development of oil shale and tar sands on 1.9 million acres in eastern Utah, western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming.
What is called the "Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement" (PEIS) was required under legislation Hatch attached to the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
"A lot of people have been armchair quarterbacking on the environmental aspects of oil-shale development," Hatch said in a news release. "Now we have the official word from the actual experts on how the environment can be protected during oil-shale development."
But while Utah Republicans champion oil shale as a key to the nation achieving energy independence, Colorado Democrats, who have succeeded in clamping a moratorium on oil-shale and tar-sands mining, say the technology to economically tap that resource is years away and may never be feasible.
Despite mounting political pressure to increase petroleum production, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., will work to extend the ban on oil-shale and tar-sand development set to expire at month's end.
"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," Salazar said in a statement. "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."
Utah's Bennett criticized the congressional moratorium and praised the BLM's new plan.
"The only obstacle standing in the way of producing more American oil through this abundant resource is Congress," Bennett said in statement.
Even if lawmakers lift the moratorium, the BLM document doesn't appear ready to kick open the door for immediate mining of oil shale. Rather, it sets up a number of critical steps that industry would have to pass before moving forward with production.
"The BLM anticipates that the eventual development of the oil-shale and tar-sands resources would proceed in a phased approach," the agency said in its study.
Among other things, exploration companies would have to demonstrate they can produce oil from shale or tar sands economically and in a manner that would not upset socioeconomics in surrounding communities. Further, production would have to adhere to tenets outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act.
Such development would be barred in about 400,000 acres in the three-state area. Those lands include "wilderness study areas," "wild and scenic rivers" and "areas of critical environmental concern," among others.
In 2007, the RAND Corp., a nonprofit policy research institute, estimated the region held 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. But the oil contained in the shale is kerogen, a waxy hydrocarbon that hasn't undergone the geologic pressure and heat necessary to create petroleum.
To extract the oil, the current technology requires strip mining and heating the rock to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This process produces greenhouse gases and requires huge amounts of water. Even if the kerogen could be siphoned economically from the rock in commercial quantities, no U.S. oil refinery currently accepts it for processing.
Shell Oil Company is experimenting with technology that heats the ground to 700 degrees for several years so that oil shale can be extracted similar to conventional drilling. Whether that process works, company officials say, won't be known for years.
In an earlier interview, Hatch conceded that oil-shale mining would not lower gasoline prices in the near future.
* PATTY HENETZ contributed to this report.

Clock ticks on moratorium
In 2007, Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. Mark Udall effectively slapped a moratorium on oil-shale and tar-sands exploration, citing environmental and community-impact concerns. Despite mounting political pressure to produce more oil domestically, Salazar said Friday he would attempt to renew the ban, set to expire Sept. 30.


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