Caution, not halt, called for on oil shale

Oil shale rock burns on its own once lit with a blow torch.

Gasoline prices have been climbing and so, naturally, is interest in oil shale. After all, if there is the equivalent of several Saudi Arabian oil fields trapped in the rock and sands of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, U.S. energy woes could be solved.

However, the Bureau of Land Management’s recent round of public hearings on oil shale, and the Obama administration’s proposal to revisit commercial leasing policies adopted in the waning days of the Bush administration have reinvigorated old tensions: Is oil shale an energy savior or an environmental disaster? How much federal land should be made available?

The Daily Sentinel has long been skeptical about just how bright the future is for oil shale. From the boom days of the early 1980s to the 21st century, claims made by oil shale boosters have failed to materialize, while serious questions about economic viability and environmental impacts have remained.

But we also recognize that several companies have been working hard to develop new technologies that they hope will be both financially profitable and less environmentally damaging. And most of these companies have refrained from making wild claims about how soon and how much oil from shale will be available.

Shell’s Mahogany Project is the most well-known of these. Another is American Shale Oil LLC. AMSO is working on a process that the company hopes will use substantially less water and be less energy intensive than earlier processes. In part, it is utilizing directional-drilling techniques developed in natural gas fields.

AMSO is a long way from demonstrating it has a viable process. It hasn’t even produced its first oil yet. But that’s the point of the BLM’s research and development leases. They allow companies to test new technology that may be considerably more environmentally friendly than older processes.

If AMSO is correct, the old argument that oil shale will require many barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced many be way off the mark. That’s a big “if,” of course. As with most oil shale technologies, it has yet to be proved, and commercial production is many years in the future.

But that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t make sense now to limit federal land available for possible commercial development in Colorado to roughly 40,000 acres — one of the alternatives under consideration in the current BLM study of oil shale leasing.

We were critical of the Bush administration for rushing to allow commercial leasing of oil shale lands when the technology was far from established. But it makes no more sense now to close hundreds of thousands of acres to possible commercial development when new technologies are in their infancy.

When its draft environmental impact statement on oil shale is released late this year, we hope the BLM chooses an alternative that preserves the potential for many more acres for commercial oil shale development, should one or more of the emerging technologies prove environmentally and economically viable.


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