Mesa County commissioners adopt a flawed resolution on oil shale

I attended the Mesa County commissioners meeting Monday morning to hear discusssion of a resolution against the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to withhold commercial leasing of oil shale lands until a method of extracting kerogen from shale is devised, tested and proved to be commercially viable.

What we heard, instead, was a diatribe against the Obama administration for reversing the last-minute 2008 Bush/Cheney order to lease 2 million acres of shale lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, including for commercial development.

The new 2012 BLM plan calls for leasing about 430,000 acres, none of which would be for commercial development.

The idea for the resolution grew out of a meeting of discontented county commissioners from the 13 counties in three states that would be impacted by shale oil development. But the resolution is so poorly done, it is hardly credible as a serious effort to change BLM oil shale policy.

On the other hand, as red meat to the drill, drill, drill crowd, it could be a thinly disguised effort to stir up the Republican base to support Congressman Doug Lamborn’s Pioneer Act proposal — which Colorado’s 3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton has supported — to begin commercial leasing of oil shale lands.

Whatever the reason, the resolution emerged from a meeting of commissioners from 13 counties in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming near federal oil shale lands. Unfortunately, it was held secretly in Vernal, Utah, so it may never be known who contributed to the resolution, or who drafted it.

It is not difficult, however, to see what vision shaped the almost paranoid tone that sees the halt to commercial leases as the result of a conspiracy among the government, the courts and “ideological opponents to oil shale development” to thwart energy development.

The BLM’s preferred alternative, the document charges, is “the creature of a friendly lawsuit settlement agreement between the BLM and ideological opponents to oil shale development, and is therefore entirely pre-determined and pre-decisional in violation of NEPA with no apparent rationale for revision of the acreages approved in 2008.”

That legal settlement required BLM to consider excluding from commercial leasing: all BLM lands identified as having wilderness characteristics, or areas serving as important sage grouse habitat, and all areas of critical environmental concern on BLM land. The commissioners want to reverse that decision.

But the rationale for the resolution loses credibility for several other reasons. While some exaggeration may be inevitable in a political argument like this one, some of the assertions cross the line into what seems to be deliberate misinformation.

“The development and production of oil from oil shale has been proven beyond a doubt to be technologically feasible,” the resolution preamble proclaims. And not only that, “this same technology to extract oil from the rock is not only economically feasible, but it requires little to no consumption of water, contrary to the myths which falsely claim that oil shale extraction requires large consumption of water resources.”

These conditions seem to fit no other shale experiment than the Red Leaf Resources operation in the Uinta Basin, described by The Deseret News. “The process, according to the company, requires no process water and utilizes low temperatures for heating that they believe will ‘allow rapid site reclamation.’”

But the Deseret News story also makes clear that the Red Leaf waterless method is specific to the conditions in the Uinta Basin. There, the shale is close to the surface and more easily mined than the deep layers of shale characteristic of Colorado.

Nothing in the resolution preamble indicates any reduction of water needed to extract kerogen from Colorado’s deep shale. Most estimates put this at about three barrels of water for one barrel of kerogen.

Whether conceived as a ruse to stimulate support for Tipton, or a real misguided attempt to start a commercial oil shale industry, the commissioners should be embarrassed to put their names to a document as flawed as this one. Citizens of the county should be angry that this political hatchet job is being executed in their name.

If the commissioners are determined to object to the 2012 BLM plan, they should base their argument on actual conditions in Colorado rather than the unique circumstances of Utah’s Uinta Basin that have no relevance for Western Colorado.

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


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