Mesa County blasts BLM oil shale plan
Mesa County commissioners on Monday blistered the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to slash the amount of land potentially available for oil shale and tar sands development in the Rocky Mountain West, alleging the federal agency is irrationally capitulating to environmental groups and ignoring the input of local governments and other stakeholders.
In a unanimously approved, strongly worded resolution similar to ones adopted by Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, the board called upon the BLM to cease all activities related to the current draft environmental impact statement and extend the public comment period on the draft statement beyond the current May 4 deadline.
“The Department of Energy has basically abdicated the responsibility Congress placed upon it to defend and uphold a viable oil shale energy program in America, leaving it instead to the BLM encumbered by a host of anti-oil shale pro-wilderness groups steering BLM’s every move,” a portion of the five-page resolution reads.
County leaders in the oil shale-rich areas of western Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming are objecting to the BLM’s modification of the Bush administration’s 2008 decision that called for leasing 2 million acres in those three states for possible commercial oil shale development and 431,000 acres for tar sands activities. The agency’s preferred alternative in the proposal unveiled in February reduces oil shale acreage to 462,000 acres and tar sands acreage to 91,000 acres.
The resolution adopted by Mesa County says the new draft plan “threatens to arbitrarily undermine the process and the work utilized in creation” of the 2008 plan and “essentially dismantle a reasonable and rational oil shale and tar sands program.”
It also claims the development and production of oil from oil shale “has been proven beyond a doubt to be technologically and economically feasible” and requires “little to no consumption of water.” Environmental organizations and western Colorado water providers disagree sharply on both those points, however, and arguments for and against the county’s resolution often fell along those same lines Monday.
Some 20 people testified in a hearing that lasted more than an hour and a half.
Several argued the resolution doesn’t take into account oil shale development’s impacts on air quality and water availability and emission of greenhouse gasses and tried to cast doubt on the return on the investment.
“Drilling in shale is a costly process and after all these years it’s still not a success,” said Grand Junction resident Peggy Rawlins.
A few cited the upcoming 30th anniversary of Exxon’s decision to close its oil shale plant in Garfield County, sending western Colorado into a decade-long economic tailspin, as proof of the need to use caution. Some said they were offended by the wording of the county’s resolution and called it “inflammatory,” particularly one section that asserted current economic and political conditions could lead to a civil uprising.
Others applauded the resolution and insisted that access to sufficient land to conduct research — along with consistent governmental policies — is necessary for companies to be able to determine the viability of oil shale production.
“Businesses will not put money into research and development without some degree of certainty,” said Betsy Bair, governmental affairs manager for the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
The hearing got testy at one point when Benita Phillips, the Mesa County president of Western Colorado Congress, began citing health concerns and risks. She objected when Commissioner Craig Meis smiled during her presentation and challenged him on his qualifications. Meis responded that he wouldn’t engage her in a debate and threatened to cut off her testimony.
“Thank you very much for your rudeness,” she said as she left the podium.
Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said the BLM’s preferred alternative removes the incentive for energy companies to conduct research on oil shale. He said while it’s unknown whether production is commercially viable, “it’s only through research that we will make that determination.”