Transportation funds, congressional approval measured in ‘dinosaur dung’

This may be the week we’ll find out if there’s anything lower than “quail crap,” former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson’s index of congressional popularity that was the subject of last week’s column.

Even Simpson apparently thinks there is. According to Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton, the colorful ex-lawmaker from our neighboring state was referencing whale excrement while talking about the U.S. Congress during a recent talk to the Colorado Forum.

Reports from Washington indicate that, by the time you’re reading this, we’ll likely have heard from the “super committee” of senators and members of the House of Representatives that their bipartisan effort to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions has failed. That inability to complete their assigned task, a week after Congress completed the heavy lifting necessary to keep the lights on until mid-December, means that mandated reductions in defense spending and domestic programs may soon drive congressional ratings into the dinosaur dung range.

Speaking of dinosaur dung and other organic matter now solidified into the oil shale that underlies the Piceance Basin, you’ll be thrilled to know that it is apparently one answer to national transportation funding over the next five years. That’s according to no less a sage prognosticator than House Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner was talking about a package of energy bills, including the “PIONEERS Act” by Colorado Springs Rep. Doug Lamborn, that were the subject of a hearing last Friday by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

That’s only the latest unrealistic expectation placed on an industry still trying to unlock technology that might enable commercial production and finally realize the century of unfulfilled promises regarding “the rock that burns.” Put another way, it’s another in a series of checks Congress is writing that Shell, Chevron and others are unprepared to cash anytime soon.

I find it hard not to sympathize with the predicament of companies doing research, development and demonstration projects on federally leased oil shale lands in Colorado and Utah.

They have to deal with the likes of Lamborn, Boehner and others promoting oil shale as the answer to current cost, supply, energy security, even funding issues as the companies continue the “10 more years” mantra that prompts skeptics to say it is “the fuel of the future and always will be.”

We’ve all heard the “next Saudi Arabia” rhetoric promising trillions of barrels of oil. But the honest description would be trillions of tons of rock making up a puzzle that must be solved before anyone can transform two tons of rock into fuel we can pump into our tanks.

Cautious as they necessarily must be about commercially viable technologies, the companies also surf that rhetorical wave when it suits them.

Certainty, they argue, should preclude any review of Interior Department regulations that Lamborn would halt with his legislation, even though a draft of those regulations is due in a month. It’s necessary, they say, to allow them to speculatively lease large tracts of federal lands before research provides any commercial technology and to lock up more acres in their research tracts.

Nice, but unnecessary.

Consider the following calculation:

One company says there are 1 million barrels of oil under each acre in just one zone of oil shale deposits. That means the 640-acre lease considered too small by industry might contain 640 million barrels. If only half that is recovered at what another company says is the $60-per-barrel price necessary to break even and provide a 15 percent profit, that’d allow nearly $3 billion in profits from recovering only half of the oil in just one of several layers of oil shale underneath the surface.

The price of a barrel of oil, I’d point out, has been much higher than $60 lately. How much profit potential is necessary for “certainty”?

Geologists describe oil shale as “immature” oil because it hasn’t been subject to the heat and pressure necessary to convert it into something more useful. We’ll see if the heat and pressure resulting from failures of Congress to deal realistically with the nation’s financial and energy issues combine to transform the House and Senate into useful problem-solving bodies.

Or, dinosaur dung.

Jim Spehar’s not optimistic that Congress will avoid new lows in its approval rating, whatever the index used. Your comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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