Bush-era oil shale decisions defended

A year and a half after President Obama took office, his administration is defending decisions made during the Bush administration related to potential oil shale development.

However, settlement negotiations continue regarding two lawsuits challenging those decisions.

Administration attorneys on Thursday finally answered the litigation by denying allegations that the Interior Department under the Bush administration broke federal laws in rules it issued for commercial oil shale development and its identification of some 2.4 million acres of public land for potential commercial oil shale and tar sands development.

Thirteen conservation groups made those allegations in lawsuits filed just before President Bush left office in January 2008.

The federal government was granted nine delays in responding to the suits before Colorado U.S. District Court Judge John L. Kane set a July 16 deadline in May and indicated he was unlikely to be willing to grant any more time.

Government attorneys asked for the delays for numerous reasons, from the Obama administration’s initial desire to get key Interior personnel in place to be able to evaluate the lawsuits, to hopes that ongoing negotiations would reach a settlement, to the Interior Department’s recent focus on addressing the Gulf oil disaster.

The suits say the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately assess environmental impacts in drafting the oil shale rules and amending land-management plans in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

They ask the court to bar the BLM from implementing the rules and to keep it from following the land-management-plan amendments or issuing shale or tar sand leases under them until environmental laws are followed.

The federal government asks in its response that the groups’ requests be denied and their complaints dismissed with judgments in favor of the defendants.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, an Obama appointee, had as a U.S. senator from Colorado criticized some oil shale decisions of the Bush administration, including setting an initial royalty rate of 5 percent. Salazar said that was too low, a contention also made in one of the lawsuits.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney for environmental groups, said it’s “standard operating procedure” for a defendant to deny all allegations in its answer to a lawsuit. However, he said the parties are continuing to hold settlement talks. He declined to discuss how they’re going because of their confidential nature.

John Martin, a government attorney working on the cases, declined to comment.

In its answer, the government conceded that large amounts of energy and water would likely be required to process oil shale.

“However, the allegation that the amounts of energy and water required would be “huge” is vague and is therefore denied,” it said.

It also admitted “that development of an oil shale industry may cause air pollution affecting the nearby communities,” and said coal-fired power plants are currently economical and “might be relied upon either in whole or in part by a future oil shale industry.”

But it said it lacked information “to form a belief as to whether the inputs for a future oil shale industry would produce four times more greenhouse gas pollution” than conventional domestic oil and gas production.


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