Rio Blanco commissioners back research on oil-shale leases

RIFLE — Two Rio Blanco County commissioners on Wednesday night voiced their support for proposed new research and development oil shale leases that they hope eventually could lead to commercial production.

Commissioners Ken Parsons and Kai Turner were among those attending a Bureau of Land Management public meeting regarding lease nominations it is considering for ExxonMobil and Natural Soda Holdings Inc. in Rio Blanco County. The agency is beginning an environmental review of the proposals.

“I’m very happy to see more research going on and I’m hopeful that the BLM goes ahead and approves these,” Parsons said.

Parsons and Turner also both expressed hope that the range of approaches companies are pursuing might lead to a commercially viable form of commercial development. Parsons said that would lead to tapping a major energy resource that would reduce U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East, “where people don’t like us.”

He thinks the government and companies are taking a better approach than during the late 1970s rush to oil shale development that was followed by the bust of the 1980s.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky also said he was excited by companies’ new oil shale efforts.

“It’s important for our economy. It’s also important on a national scale,” he said.

ExxonMobil and Natural Soda emerged as candidates for further consideration after the BLM decided to offer a second round of research and development leases. Shell holds three leases in Rio Blanco County, and Chevron and American Shale Oil, LLC, one apiece, from the first round.

ExxonMobil wants to test technology to use electricity to heat and fracture rock underground to free up oil. Natural Soda, which already produces sodium bicarbonate in place underground in Rio Blanco County using solution mining, is proposing a process under which it would remove sodium bicarbonate and then heat and produce the oil remaining in the rock using a burner powered by natural gas.

ExxonMobil projects hiring as many as 120 employees and contractors during its R&D construction phase, and reducing that to about 20 people during ongoing operations. Natural Soda predicts employment levels potentially ranging from about 5 to 20.

Paul Tanaka, oil shale team lead for ExxonMobil, said the company hopes “just to be able to come in and do the research that needs to be done.”

Bob Warneke of Natural Soda said it will take time to see how his company’s process and those of other companies perform.

“I think there’s a long road ahead for everyone involved,” he said.


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