Lamborn-Tipton shale proposal doomed to failure in Senate

The conflict over developing shale oil resources in the Green River Formation pits Republican magical thinking against Democratic realism. On one side is the belief that government stimulation can precipitate a commercial oil shale boom. The opposition uses empirical evidence to call for a slow and careful approach to developing this potential energy resource.

Magical thinking links one event to another without a plausible explanation. When the rooster thinks the sun came up only because he crowed, he is guilty of magical thinking.

But in its milder form, according to some definitions, magical thinkers believe things more strongly than evidence or experience can support. For example, after a hundred years of broken promises, lost fortunes and shattered dreams, no company has produced a single barrel of oil for the commercial oil market.

Nevertheless, Colorado Republican Congressmen Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton seem to believe that just one more infusion of federal subsidies for shale development will finally achieve the success that has eluded oil companies and federal agencies all these years.

The PIONEER Act, introduced by Lamborn, but amended and supported by Tipton, would require the Secretary of the Interior to offer more opportunities for energy companies to try extracting kerogen from shale in commercial quantities — though not necessarily at commercially competitive prices. That difference will be made up by lower royalties to the affected communities, and other incentives to assure the companies a profit.

The bill also directs the Secretary of Interior to issue additional commercial leases and research, development and demonstration leases, give certainty to the private sector by making commercial oil shale regulations permanent, and give the Interior secretary tools to further stimulate oil shale development.

With no sure method of producing commercial quantities of shale oil, it will strain even magical thinking to regulate an industry not yet born.

As Wyoming rancher and former associate state Bureau of Land Management director, Bill Eikenberry wrote, “For more than 100 years, oil and gas boosters have promised that pulling oil out of rock-solid kerogen formations in the West would be easy, and the region would be awash in jobs, fortunes and eternal economic prosperity if we tapped it.”

But, he concluded, “Oil shale is an empty promise; our decision-makers in Washington should instead be focused on sources that offer reliable energy and jobs, while protecting our water supples.”

Some future breakthrough in extracting oil from shale may prove Eikenberry wrong, but the evidence now is heavily on his side. No current research suggests that any commercial production is likely for at least a decade.

Shell Oil, which has the most promising current research, predicts attempts to produce oil in commercial quantities at a competitive price could be even further in the future.

Right or wrong, Eikinberry is a realist who bases his opinion on compelling evidence from failed previous efforts and current lack of progress at developing commercial oil shale. His advice seems far more sound than the wishful Republican dream of shale oil as an answer to our current energy needs.

This is not to suggest that the Lamborn-Tipton proposal has any chance of passage in the Senate. As the Los Angeles Times points out, “It isn’t just that this bill is so thoroughly partisan that it has no chance of being approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate; it’s that it is less a serious policy document than a wish list for oil lobbyists, and its funding proposals are so radical that they have been decried even by such conservative watchdogs as the Reason Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Taxpayers for Common Sense.”

Now, bundled with two other equally unlikely-to-pass regulations opening the Arctic National Wildlife Area for drilling and permitting drilling in sensitive areas off the California coast as part of a transportation bill, these regulations are going nowhere in the Senate.

This legislative fiasco is a monument to the failure of the House Republicans to put the interest of the country ahead of their party goals. In November, voters should send an unmistakable message to Washington Republicans that it is time to end their partisan games and govern for the best interests of the entire country.

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


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Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County visited Tipton’s office twice to try to explain to him the reality of oil shale development. His staff didn’t seem very interested in hearing the facts. I just saw that this bill passed the House. Let’s hope that the Senate does read the CBO report and kills the bill.

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