SustainAbility, Sept. 3, 2011

Well, now we know. According to the recent congressional field hearing titled “American Jobs and Energy Security: Domestic Oil Shale and the Status of Research, Regulation and Roadblocks,” regulation is the only roadblock with real merit.

My perspective is a little bit different. Instead of viewing regulation as a major roadblock for the industry, I consider it a form of protection.

Witness after witness connected to the oil industry claimed companies can balance environmental concerns with research, demonstration, development and subsequent production on oil shale leases. “Regulatory certainty” is all that is missing.

We were also assured not to worry about water usage and other similar concerns because the “nature of business” demands efficiencies.

Perhaps we should just trust Big Oil since record profits obviously demonstrate excellent business acumen.

On the other hand it would be nice to allow for regulatory adjustments as more information is uncovered about potential impacts to habitat, wildlife and especially water.

Helen Hankins, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Colorado director, stressed there is no commercially viable, environmentally responsible development approach for oil shale at this time.

The BLM controls 70 percent of potential oil shale land and prefers a balanced, orderly approach to oil shale leasing.

The BLM’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report about the effect of commercial oil shale development on water concluding there could be “significant impacts on the quality and quantity of water resources.”

Jim Spehar, former Grand Junction mayor and Mesa County commissioner, spoke as a witness at the hearing. He suggested using the time prior to oil shale production to build a “no regrets strategy” for communities through comprehensive planning and an up-front oil shale trust fund set aside by developers.

These sounded like reasonable suggestions to me, but there were no follow-up questions for Spehar and the trust fund issue was not addressed by industry representatives.

At the hearing, it was assumed our need for oil will continue unabated, so there was no discussion about decreasing consumption as a means to security.

What we really need is a completely new approach toward energy that will allow us to adapt as the situation changes.

Sitting at the hearing, I thought about a book I read two years ago. Written by Christopher Steiner, “$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better” explores what our world will look as oil becomes more scarce and expensive.

Steiner collected information from experts in the fields of energy, transportation, urban planning and farming to paint a picture of a dramatically altered future.

That future looks different, but different doesn’t have to be bad.

During the Industrial Revolution and in the early days of the oil and gas industry, people were unaware of the negative impacts of relying on fossil fuels for energy.

We can no longer use ignorance as an excuse. We do not have the luxury of pretending our addiction to oil is benign. This addiction is fraught with external costs and causes irreparable collateral damage.

Since we are past the peak of conventional sources of oil, recovering black gold from unconventional sources involves ever increasing amounts of money and resources.

Oil shale is one of these unconventional sources and, even though we are sitting on 75 percent of the world’s oil shale, we should proceed with caution.

It is imperative to weigh the short term benefits of extracting oil shale and other unconventional sources against the long term impacts.

Oil shale has been described as a bridge between fossil fuels and alternative sources of energy, but if we choose to go down that path we should be careful not to burn the bridge to the future.

Adele Israel is a Grand Junction writer who has been involved in sustainability efforts for some 20 years. Have a question or column idea for Adele? Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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