I am not good at playing poker. I can't bluff and am totally inept in figuring out what other players have in their hands. The ongoing debate about the economic benefits of investing in oil shale and tar sands development is like playing a game of poker, where one side may be a bit more adept at bluffing than the other.
Gov. Gary Herbert and our congressional delegation have objected to the Bureau of Land Management's recent proposal to lease public lands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for oil shale and tar sands development. They accuse the agency of exerting heavy-handedness with no scientific backing.
It's time for a fact check. In a recent study, the BLM proposed several options to allow the leasing of federal lands in the three states for further research and development. The options would leave open anywhere from 5,700 to 253,000 acres in Utah for R&D on oil shale, and more than twice that in the entire tri-state region when tar sands leasing is included.
That's right. More than half a million acres of public lands would be made available for two sources of energy that have so far not been proven to be financially viable or safe. The BLM is being extremely patient and generous. In essence, they're saying, "We'll give you up to half a million acres to prove this process is viable. When you do, we'll then talk about more leasing."
A process for extracting fuel from shale rock has been elusive for more than a century. Why is it so difficult? Partly, it's because oil shale doesn't contain oil, but rather kerogen, a waxy substance that is a precursor to oil. Leave the substance in the ground for another 100 million years and it might actually be more like coal or even crude oil. Until then, it is far too "young" to actually be declared a viable source of energy.
Industry giants such as Exxon-Mobile and Chevron have made various attempts over the decades to extract the kerogen, including heating the rock to extremely high temperatures, 800-900 degrees Fahrenheit (a process that is very energy intensive). Then the kerogen has to be transported to refineries (more energy) where it must undergo a refining process to produce a usable fuel (and more energy). In the end, the energy input has proven too costly to provide a viable energy output. Even Shell Oil is still proclaiming that a viable, safe method is 10-15 years away.
Retired University of Oregon geology professor Walter Youngquist perhaps said it best when he described oil shale as "the fuel of the future and always will be."
The process has also shown to be very water-intensive, requiring up to 4-5 barrels of water for every barrel of oil. That contaminated water has to then be safely disposed. These issues alone should be major concerns for the roughly 30 million people who rely on the Colorado River watershed for their water.
Contrary to industry claims and political rhetoric, most published scientific studies and acknowledged experts say that viably processing oil shale and tar sands is still costly and potentially damaging to the environment. This is good enough reason to allow for more research and development while restricting large-scale leasing for speculative purposes that would only tie up public lands enjoyed by us all.
We have good options here that will allow thoughtful processes to move forward on real science and sound judgment. Let's not begin this game of poker.
I've played that game before, and I know how it turns out.
Rebecca Chavez-Houck represents District 24 in the Utah House of Representatives. She lives in Salt Lake City.