Oil shale leases hinge on balance between energy, environment

Natural Soda Holdings Inc. in Rio Blanco County is a major producer of baking soda. The company wants to use its experience in directional and horizontal drilling to pursue new technology to develop oil shale underground in the same area.



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Natural Soda Holdings Inc. in Rio Blanco County is a major producer of baking soda. The company wants to use its experience in directional and horizontal drilling to pursue new technology to develop oil shale underground in the same area.

Last week, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union president Kent Peppler issued a call to “proceed with caution” on oil shale development in the West, to protect agriculture and watersheds from losses in water quantity and quality.

What defines a cautionary approach depends upon to whom you talk, however. For Peppler, writing in a guest column for the website newest.net, the new round of research and development leases being offered by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, including in Rio Blanco County, are “the right way to go.”

For environmentalists such as Jason Wedemeyer, Western Slope energy organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, issuing a second round of such leases isn’t warranted when the impacts associated with technologies being tried by companies in a first round of leases remain unknown. In Colorado, those leases are held by Shell, Chevron and American Shale Oil LLC.

“We want to see results before we lease off more of the Piceance Basin,” Wedemeyer said Thursday as he surveyed existing and proposed lease sites from the air on a plane ride provided by EcoFlight.

Viewing the patchwork of drilling pads, pipeline corridors and other facilities related to natural gas development already occurring in the same area, Wedemeyer worried about the potential additional impact on wildlife such as deer and elk if more shale leases are issued.

Such concerns are amplified by a recent study for the federal government showing mule deer numbers have fallen to less than half their 2001 count in the gas-development region near Pinedale, Wyo.

Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association, thinks any shale development would disturb less land than natural gas drilling and thus have less effect on wildlife.

“As with all these things, there will be some impact, but I think there are mitigation measures that … can be put in place,” he said.

Water and wildlife are among a host of issues to be considered during Bureau of Land Management environmental reviews in Colorado and Utah after the BLM’s Washington office decided to advance nominations for the second round of leases for further study. ExxonMobil and Natural Soda Holdings are seeking the Rio Blanco County leases, and AuraSource Inc. wants one in Utah.

While the Colorado Environmental Coalition continues to oppose issuing more leases, Wedemeyer said he is glad the ones Salazar offered are smaller. Companies are seeking 160-acre leases, with the possibility to expand them to 640-acre commercial leases. The first round of 160-acre leases provided for potential expansion to 5,120-acre commercial leases.

The governors of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming were part of a team that reviewed the new shale-lease nominations. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said in an October news release the new lease program has elements he has supported, including the smaller lease sizes. It will answer important questions such as technologies’ water needs and environmental and community impacts, he said.

“As I have always maintained, these questions must be answered before oil shale research can transition to commercial development,” Ritter said.

Said Vawter, “It’s all focused on trying to develop some new technology that would be economically and environmentally sustainable.”



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