Groups sue over oil shale plans

Environmentalists say government illegally drafted rules for industry

Environmental groups Friday filed two lawsuits challenging the federal government’s push toward possible commercial oil shale development.

They announced their legal action late Friday afternoon, just hours after the Bureau of Land Management said in a news release it had revised its first round of oil shale research, development and demonstration leases “to provide the rules necessary to convert them to commercial operations.”

The BLM said the original 2006 and 2007 lease agreements provide that the leases be guided by any subsequent oil shale regulations. In November, the agency issued final rules for commercial oil shale development on public lands.

BLM spokesman Matt Spangler said the agency got all the lease holders to sign agreements this week “making it ironclad” the regulations issued in November would apply to the leases.

Friday’s flurry of oil shale activities came just days before the Bush administration leaves office.

Thirteen groups filed Friday’s suits. The groups contend the BLM illegally drafted regulations for a commercial oil shale program without having sufficient information on environmental impacts.

They also say the BLM broke the law by not giving the public a chance to administratively appeal its decision to amend land-management plans in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to allow oil shale and tar sands development on more than 2 million acres.

In addition, the groups say the Bush administration violated the law by failing to ensure taxpayers will receive a fair return from oil shale lease royalties. The BLM in November established a 5 percent royalty rate that grows over time to 12.5 percent.

On Jan. 6, the environmental groups also sent notice of intent to sue the Bush administration for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act in connection with its oil shale development plans. If the government doesn’t respond within 60 days, those claims will be added to one of the suits filed Friday, the groups said in a news release.

Earlier this week, the BLM announced it would undertake a second round of oil shale research, development and demonstration leases. Its first round resulted in five leases being issued in Rio Blanco County, and one in Utah.

Shell holds three of the 160-acre Colorado leases, which upon certain conditions being met can be expanded to commercial leases covering about eight square miles each.

Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd called this week’s revision of the leases unexpected.

“I think it’s to give us the assurance of the long-term regulatory certainty, because there are threats right now to revoke or change those regulations by legal action,” he said before Friday’s suits were announced.

The BLM news release said the revisions provide predictability regarding converting leases to commercial ones “in the event that federal regulations governing those activities are not in effect.”


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