BLM sticks to reduced-acreage shale plan

The Bureau of Land Management has settled on a two-thirds — as opposed to a previously proposed three-quarters — reduction in land to be made available for potential oil shale development in three Western states.

The agency released a final proposal Friday that would make about 677,000 acres open for application for oil shale leasing in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

That compares to about 2 million acres under a 2008 decision under the Bush administration. But it’s up substantially from the 462,000 acres that would have been made available under a draft BLM proposal released earlier this year.

However, the final proposal goes even further than the 90 percent reduction in Colorado acreage proposed in the draft plan. The BLM is proposing making about 26,000 acres available for lease applications in Colorado, compared to about 360,000 acres made available in 2008 and about 35,000 acres in the draft proposal earlier this year.

“I would be disappointed if the numbers were even further down in Colorado,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, speaking before he’d had a chance to see the final proposal.

He supports the 2008 plan, and said he’s worried that there basically will be no available acreage left in the state.

The world’s largest known oil shale deposits are in the three states, with the richest deposits centered in Rio Blanco and Garfield counties.

The proposal would make available about 357,000 acres in Utah and 293,000 acres in Wyoming.

The final BLM proposal carries forward the draft proposal that only research, development and demonstration leases would be issued at first — a requirement not part of the 2008 plan. Commercial leases would be issued only when a lessee satisfies conditions including those in the RD&D lease.

The final proposal also would result in about 130,000 acres being open for commercial tar sands leasing in Utah. That compares to 91,000 acres in the draft proposal and about 431,000 in the 2008 plan.

Also Friday, the BLM in Colorado said it signed RD&D leases with ExxonMobil Exploration Co. and Natural Soda Holdings Inc. The leases are for technologies the two companies are planning to test to develop oil shale in place underground in Rio Blanco County. The leases take effect Dec. 1.

The agency had approved the leases in August but wasn’t able to sign them until a protest period had passed. BLM spokesman Steven Hall said no protests were filed.

The leases are for 160 acres and include the potential for the companies to add another 480 acres of commercial lease acreage.

“Today’s leases demonstrate our continued commitment to encouraging research and development that will help fill in some of the existing knowledge gaps when it comes to technology, water use and potential impacts of commercial-scale oil shale development,” BLM Colorado state director Helen Hankins said in an agency news release. “To date, technological and economic conditions have not combined to support a sustained commercial oil shale industry, and this plan lays a strong foundation to explore oil shale’s potential.”

The BLM’s latest shale and tar sands land allocation proposal for the three states is subject to a 30-day protest period and a 60-day review by the three states’ governors before it can make a final decision.

The agency reconsidered the 2008 allocation as part of a lawsuit settlement with conservation groups. Counties that are home to oil shale deposits have called on the agency to leave the 2008 decision unchanged.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in a news release Friday that he welcomes the “measured steps” the Interior Department is taking to encourage oil shale research and development.

“With water being one of our most precious commodities in the West, I have concerns about the potential impacts of commercial oil shale development. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing this technology explored further. …  The Interior Department’s decision (Friday) ensures that we will not be out over the front of our skis with untested technology.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said, “Colorado knows all too well what can happen when we rush into oil shale development. This plan will help ensure that any future commercial oil shale enterprise will proceed in an environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable way.”

Bill Midcap of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union said in a statement, “We’ve been hit with the worst drought in 10 years, and costly oil shale speculation poses an unacceptable risk to our water. (Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar is taking a common-sense approach that will help protect the future of our farms and ranches and our water by requiring oil shale to complete research first.”

The American Petroleum Institute called the final proposal “another step in the wrong direction that limits development and investment in one of the nation’s most energy-rich areas and goes against a prior government decision that would allow for research and development over a much wider geographical area. Just days after the election this decision by the administration sends negative signals to industry and capital markets at a time when we need to encourage growth and innovation in the U.S.”

Jankovsky said it appeared the government had already decided on its final proposal before Tuesday’s election, but waited to release it so it didn’t become an election issue.

The BLM said in its news release that the acreage changes between the draft and final proposal reflect its correction of acreage identified as lands with wilderness characteristics in Wyoming, re-evaluation of some lands designated as areas of critical environmental concern, and refinements to management of greater sage-grouse habitat to reflect information from state wildlife agencies.

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in a news release that it applauds the BLM’s research-first proposal, but is worried that some key greater sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming was opened to potential development.

“We need to understand fully the trade-offs we are making before we seal the deal to commit a thousand square miles of public land to this risky business,’’ said Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation public lands policy director. “If we don’t, good air and water quality, fish and wildlife values could be lost forever.”

The BLM’s final programmatic environmental impact statement on oil shale and tar sands land allocations is available at


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