Craig Thompson Column November 30, 2008

Congress should reinstate the oil shale moratorium

In a blind rush to promote oil shale development, the Bureau of Land Management released rules Nov. 17 governing commercial oil shale operations on public lands and royalties the companies must pay for producing oil from shale. Not surprisingly, oil shale royalties are a fraction of those charged for other public-land energy resources.

Why do we have to sweeten the deal when the potential energy reserve from Rocky Mountain oil shale is both enormous and seductive? Western Colorado knows all too well that past attempts to subsidize the industry have not worked.

Why? To begin with it is neither oil nor shale. The energy source is kerogen with a low heat content — about 10 percent of crude oil — a lower heat content than municipal garbage and half the heat content of prunes.

Oil shale boosters tell us that there may be a trillion or two barrels of kerogen — perhaps 800 billion barrels of it recoverable. That is an enormous reserve and it is seductive to a fossil-fuel addicted country.

Appropriately seduced, the BLM is in an obvious hurry. Its rules will take effect three days before President George W. Bush and his administration leave office. The BLM’s urgency was obvious when, in May, the agency denied a request by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter for additional time to review the 2,000 page environmental impact statement.

Why the rush? The reserve has been here for the last 50 million years.

Oil shale development will produce huge environmental costs, globally and locally.

Low-heat fuels that require a lot of energy to develop mean more carbon dioxide per unit of heat yielded. This means considerably more global warming pollution. Some of the world’s top climate scientists recently have issued warnings that we are on the verge of unstoppable global warming.

Oil shale expands when retorted into an enormous solidwaste problem — concentrated in water-soluble salts and metals that must be isolated to prevent contamination.

Also, oil shale beds often serve as the floor for aquifers. That may cause the groundwater to become contaminated with elements like arsenic and fluoride. This becomes a groundwater nightmare.

One cost of oil shale development will be paid in units of acre-feet — water. Turning shale into useful fuel will require lakes of water in all phases of development. Water has to come from somewhere in this arid region. It can only come from unclaimed Colorado River Basin water or from existing users. The former source promises a fight and the latter a major war.

Water is just one issue. Public oil shale lands support some of the richest wildlife populations in North America — already impacted by a booming natural gas industry. These 2 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are home to the largest mule deer herd in the country, as well as mountain lions, black bears, bald eagles and elk. Develop that habitat and Americans will be left with an impoverished landscape.

In spite of the enormous promise, oil shale remains a finite non-renewable resource. With current technology, oil shale will not solve our energy problems.  It is a desperately poor fuel that will not bring energy independence. That solution will ultimately come by converting to renewable resources.

Oil shale development may delay a transition to renewable energy that we must make in the future. That delay will come at a terrible cost to the West and perhaps to the planet.

Govs. Freudenthal and Ritter, along with Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and Senator-elect Mark Udall get it. They have called for a go-slow approach. We need to support them and to urge them to call on Congress to reinstate the oil shale moratorium.
Craig Thompson was an oil shale worker in the 1970s, an oil shale/groundwater researcher in the 1980s, and is now professor of Engineering and Environmental Science at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. He is also the chairman-elect of the National Wildlife Federation board of directors.


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