Research first is sensible on oil shale

Outgoing Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar released a final plan Friday for encouraging research, development and demonstration of oil shale and tar sands projects on federal lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

It will no doubt trouble many oil shale boosters that the final plan differs little from the draft plan released a few years ago by the Bureau of Land Management under Salazar.

But the requirement that energy companies demonstrate they have commercially viable procedures for removing kerogen from oil shale, and that they can meet clean air and water requirements before the federal government will consider leases for commercial oil shale production makes a great deal of sense.

It is sensible for a number of reasons, the first being that most of the companies developing oil shale recovery procedures say they are at least a decade away from commercial production.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no pressing need for commercial production of oil shale to meet the nation’s energy needs. The latest projections by energy forecasters are that this country may become energy independent by the end of this decade, or soon thereafter, without assistance from oil shale.

Directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing are allowing energy companies to reap massive supplies of oil and natural gas from deposits that were previously unavailable to them.

In addition, U.S. consumers are conserving more, driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and using better appliances.

And, while they’re a long way from replacing hydrocarbons, alternative forms of energy such as solar and wind power are contributing more to our overall energy supply.

There is little reason to quickly grant commercial leases to oil shale companies, betting public lands on procedures whose viability and environmental consequences remain uncertain.

The Interior Department’s final oil shale plan makes approximately 700,000 acres in the three states available for oil shale research and development. Another 130,000 acres will be available in Utah for tar sands research.

That’s less than half of what was available under a leasing plan approved in 2008 in the final months of the Bush administration. And the Bush plan would have allowed oil shale companies to convert research and development leases to commercial ones far more easily.

The new plan also establishes a new effort to gather public input on possible changes to royalties that would be paid by energy companies if commercial oil shale production begins. Under the Bush rules, royalties from oil shale would have initially been less than half those of conventional oil and gas production. Royalties would have increased over time.

This a reasonable plan to continue research into oil shale development while holding off on commercial leasing.


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