Bush sees West's oil shale as domestic-energy answer
WASHINGTON - President Bush on Wednesday joined a growing demand to toss regulations holding back production of oil shale in the West, one of four approaches the president suggested in an effort to curb soaring gas prices.
With a gallon of gas reaching more than $4 across America, Bush called for tapping vast deposits of oil shale, a sedimentary rock that when heated yields a potential fuel source, which supporters say can be processed into a synthetic oil.
Bush stressed a much-used talking point that the oil shale deposits in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming hold the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
"That's more than three times larger than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia," Bush said in a Rose Garden address. "And it can be fully recovered - and if it can be fully recovered, it would be equal to more than a century's worth of currently projected oil imports."
The cost of extracting the oil from the rock so far has been too high, but it's currently less than the market price of oil now, Bush said, and that makes it a "highly promising resource."
Critics quickly jumped on Bush's comments, noting that even with decades of research, no company has been able to squeeze commercially viable oil from the rock.
"Even the most optimistic estimates suggest there would not be a commercial volume of oil produced by any of the potential technologies [for] 10 to 20 years, which obviously won't provide any relief at the pump in the next 10 to 20 days," said Chase Huntley, policy adviser for energy and climate change at The Wilderness Society.
Oil shale proponents say a moratorium placed on finalizing federal regulations on oil shale extraction is hampering efforts to harvest a dependable, domestic source of fuel. But environmentalists charge that even with a clear path to extracting fuel from the oil shale, it's not technically viable to do so yet.
"Government regulations are not what is prohibiting development of this potential resource," Huntley said.
Bush mentioned oil shale as part of a four-pronged strategy to wean the nation off foreign sources of oil, the cost of which has risen sharply in recent years to an all-time high. Bush also spoke in favor of building more oil refineries, and for drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along America's coastline.
Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon, who last week introduced legislation to cut through any red tape on oil shale production, and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch hailed Bush's comments.
"I welcome the president's leadership on this issue and am pleased he has heard the cries of the American people to develop energy here at home," Cannon said in a statement. "For too long we have been on bended knee to foreign potentates, while this country's vast energy sources go undeveloped."
Hatch also blasted Democrats for blocking efforts to reap those deposits.
"It is criminal to have our nation held hostage by foreign powers due to our reliance on oil from the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela," Hatch said. "It is fiscally irresponsible to send more than $600 billion each year to countries that are a lot smarter about energy than we, because they are willing to develop their own oil resources and we are not."
But Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat who wants to slow the rush to oil shale production to ensure environmental protections are in place, argued that holding a "fire sale on commercial oil shale leases" will not impact gas prices anytime soon.
"The president's rhetoric this morning on oil shale showed that he is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of oil shale development and Western communities," Salazar said.
President Bush on Wednesday alleged that Democrats in Congress sneaked a provision prohibiting oil shale leases on federal lands into a budget bill despite the fact the measure was approved by the House during a vote a year ago. "In last year's omnibus spending bill, Democratic leaders inserted a provision blocking oil shale leasing on federal lands," Bush said Wednesday. "That provision can be taken out as easily as it was slipped in - and Congress should do so immediately." The House voted 216-210 last June to amend the budget bill with the moratorium, and Bush signed the measure shortly after.