Energy Dept. to examine low-impact development

The U.S. Department of Energy is pursuing a new initiative to study how resources in a multistate western “energy corridor” can be developed in a way that minimizes impacts to the environment and local communities.

One of the initial focuses will be oil shale, which the Interior Department has been pushing to open up for commercial development on public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Representatives of DOE agencies introduced the initiative this week at an oil shale symposium at the Colorado School of Mines. Initiative participants include the Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but other agencies and university researchers also are expected to be involved.

In an interview Thursday, Tom Wood, a scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory, said the initiative’s focus is an area that roughly parallels the Rocky Mountains and extends to the east, and runs from New Mexico north into Canada. The region includes world-class coal and oil shale deposits, other fuels such as natural gas and uranium, and renewable energy sources including wind and solar.

“It’s a very energy-rich zone,” Wood said. “Taken in total, it’s very significant and could greatly help to address the United States’ energy needs.”

Many resources overlap each other, such as oil shale that overlies natural gas, Wood said. The resources also often occur in rural areas, and it’s important that any development occur in a way that minimizes impacts on rural communities and the environment, he said. It’s also crucial to ensure these communities not be subject to booms and busts, he said.

Northwest Colorado already is undergoing extensive natural gas development, raising concerns about the additional environmental and community impacts if oil shale development occurred on top of that. One possibility Wood envisions in such situations is that oil shale development could ramp up as natural gas drilling slowed down, eliminating the economic downturn the slowdown could precipitate.

The initiative is linked to the 2005 energy bill mandate for the DOE to create an unconventional fuels task force, Wood said. He said a tentative three-year plan for the initiative includes establishing a baseline of existing resources, evaluating the water, environmental, infrastructure and socioeconomic capacities of the region, and developing a tool for evaluating how to minimize impacts under various development scenarios.

The study will extend into Canada, where researchers can learn from what has worked and not worked in regard to oil sands development there, Wood said.


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