No matter the technology, the problem still lies with the rock

“Over the last 100 years … numerous smart people … have tried to unlock oil shale’s secrets, and time and again it’s the rock that stymies them,” says David Abelson of Western Resource Advocates. “It’s not congressional policy, it’s not who happens to be interior secretary, it’s the rock.”

This morning in Grand Junction, Rep. Scott Tipton will assemble his Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources for a hearing on “American Jobs and Energy Security: Domestic Oil Shale the Status of Research, Regulation and Roadblocks” in the latest effort to develop a policy to unlock the secret of “the rock that burns.”

Tipton and other supporters of ramped-up oil shale development object to the announcement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the Obama administration is taking another look at Bush administration oil shale leases.

Specifically, the administration is concerned about the impact of shale development on water and the environment.

The Government Accountability Office reports, “Oil shale development could have significant impacts on the quality and quantity of water resources, but the magnitude of these impacts is unknown because technologies are years from being commercially proven, the size of a future oil shale industry is uncertain, and knowledge of current water conditions and groundwater flow is limited.”

It would be easier to have some confidence in the outcome of Tipton’s dog and pony show if he had chosen less loaded language for his title. “Roadblocks” implies that legitimate scientific, technical, economic and cultural problems are simply unnecessary impediments, slowing the inevitable march toward a massive shale oil industry in Colorado and Utah.

This is hardly the case. After more than a hundred years of research and experimentation without production of a single commercial barrel of oil from shale, that view seems to be based on little more than optimism.

A more neutral term than “roadblocks” would have been “challenges”— as in a problem to be solved, rather than an obstacle to be pushed aside.

For example, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says in a new study, “Basin States could face increased challenges in meeting their water needs if proposed oil shale development moves forward in Colorado and Utah.”

Since The Government Accountability Office estimates “the size of an industry in Colorado or Utah may eventually be limited by water availability,” it would seem Tipton’s subcommittee should address the challenges water poses for shale development before recommending expansion of the industry.

If they did, a good starting place would be a new study by NRDC called Between a Rock and a Dry Place. The report “explores the potential impacts of oil shale development on water supplies in the (Colorado River) Basin and on the region’s agricultural economy, water quality, protected species and natural environment.”

Key findings confirm that the Colorado River is over subscribed, and for the past decade water use in the basin has exceeded the available supply. Producing 15 million barrels of shale oil a day would consume half again as much Colorado River water as Denver does each year.

Colorado agriculture would be hit particularly hard by shale development. Most of the necessary water is expected to come from senior agriculture water rights already acquired by the energy industry.

Shale development would transform a landscape known for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife with industrial infrastructure. Impacts on natural lands, fish, and wildlife would be extensive, including impacts on threatened species in the region.

Production and refining of oil shale produces significantly higher greenhouse gases than conventional oil fuels, contributing to rapid climate change, which will reduce Colorado River Basin water supplies. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program predicts runoff decreases of 10 to 25 percent by 2050.

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates a nine percent decrease over the next 50 years.

If policy decisions could coax keragen — precursor to oil — from the rock, a flourishing shale oil industry would have emerged years ago. But, as the U.S. Geological Survey points out, “Development of oil shale has significant technological and environmental challenges and no economic extraction method is currently available in the U.S.”

Until that problem is solved, hearings like that scheduled for today are no more effective than whistling in the wind.

In other words, “It’s the rock, Stupid.”

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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