No reason to rush on oil shale leasing

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s new plan for another round of federal research and development leases for oil shale includes this astonishing idea:

The new leases will be aimed at helping federal officials answer questions about the effect of oil shale development on water quantity and quality, and on the environment in general, along with the socioeconomic impact.

Equally important, Salazar said that information is needed “before we lunge ahead” with commercial oil shale development.

We couldn’t agree more. In fact, we have argued for a number of years that it doesn’t make sense to proceed with leasing of federal lands for commercial oil shale development, as the Bush administration pushed for, when work on research and development leases is many years from being completed.

So we’re also pleased to see that Salazar plans to re-examine a last-minute Bush administration edict that began to establish ground rules for commercial oil shale leasing of federal lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

As a member of the U.S. Senate from Colorado prior to his appointment as secretary of interior, Salazar also argued against rushing to lease federal lands for commercial oil shale development. Therefore, it’s not a great surprise that he’s establishing a more measured approach now.

Even so, his decision to allow a second round of research and development leases upset some environmental groups. They pointed out, reasonably enough, that existing R&D leases are many years away from producing useful information. Also, they noted there are thousands of acres of oil shale lands already owned by oil companies on which they can conduct research.

But Salazar is right on the money regarding the need for more data on potential environmental and socioeconomic consequences of oil shale development.

For much of this decade, people have tried to assess how much water a commercial oil shale industry will need and where it will come from, how much electricity and where it will be generated, how many workers will be needed, both on site and in ancillary industries. There are projections for all of these, but they have been frequently disputed and may change with different technology.

It would, indeed, be a mistake to “lunge ahead” toward a commercial oil shale industry until we have much better answers to those questions.


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