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Good politics: Matheson's oil-shale measure bad for Utah

Published September 19, 2008 7:06 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a testament to the doggedness of both Democrats and Republicans to turn high energy prices to their political advantage.

Tuesday, a U.S. House of Representatives controlled by Democrats approved an energy bill that includes lifting a ban on offshore drilling that has been in effect since the early 1980s. Tacked onto that is a measure added by Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson that would lift a moratorium on oil shale leasing in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming and let those states decide whether to allow it.

Democrats call the energy bill a compromise because, while it lifts the drilling ban, it limits offshore drilling to at least 50 miles from U.S. coasts. And the bill would repeal $18 billion in oil industry tax breaks and promote development of alternative sources of energy. Utah Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon voted against it.

Both the oil-shale development measure and the approval of limited offshore drilling are the Democrats' way of countering Republican claims that the GOP is fighting to lower the price of fuel while Democrats stand in the way. Oil from shale would have no effect on pump prices for a decade, if ever, since the technology to produce it is years away.

Matheson's initiative is meant to silence Republican members of Congress, including Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. They have been loudly touting the possibilities of oil shale, while damning its Democratic opponents, who rightly say that mining shale and turning it into oil would devastate thousands of acres of public land, produce millions of tons of CO2, which causes global warming, and use up millions of gallons of scarce Western water.

But political expediency rules the day in this contentious election year.

Matheson at least buffered the way in which the bill would end the congressional moratorium, which prohibits the Bureau of Land Management from setting regulations for oil-shale production. Under his measure, the BLM would set the rules, then each state could decide whether to allow leasing for oil shale. The Utah Legislature undoubtedly would jump on the opportunity to turn eastern Utah into a vast strip mine.

As political posturing, the bill does its job. But for Utah, oil-shale development would be a disaster.