Utahns speaking out for and against oil shale development on federal lands at public meetings this week will describe starkly different future realities.
Is the waxy rock underlying eastern Utah and western Colorado and Wyoming a fool's gold of energy dreamers who threaten land and water in their quest? Or is it the next big thing?
"Sometimes we wonder why we're even discussing oil shale," Western Resource Advocates oil shale adviser David Abelson said last week in releasing a new report critical of the "speculative" industry that he warned could soak up scarce water and scar lands better used to support recreation jobs. "It's not real."
It has created a real enough political firestorm, though. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes to lease up to 462,000 acres in the region, mostly in Utah, and will conduct meetings this week before finalizing its plan. Lesser holdings would be available for tar sands development. Such a scheme would allow a huge escalation in what's been an entirely experimental energy industry, but it's significantly less than the 1.9 million acres the Bush administration originally offered.
Gov. Gary Herbert, R-Utah, blasted the plan's announcement last month as "bass-ackwards" and "hostile toward even the possible development of much-needed energy resources."
Some companies, which say they're ready to mine and heat the rock to generate oil, say their processes use little water. But the WRA's report, "Oil Shale 2050," taps BLM estimates to calculate that full-field development would need more water than used by the 1.3 million customers currently relying on Denver's water system.
"Where would all that water come from and what uses and users would lose out?" WRA lands program attorney Mike Chiropolos asked. "Should we risk jobs that already exist, or existing businesses, for a speculative energy source?"
Abelson pointed to Chevron's decision last month to abandon its experimental lease in northwest Colorado's Piceance Basin as evidence that the industry is going nowhere and shouldn't hold sway over such a vast swath of the region's public lands.
Chevron said it was divesting to reassign people and resources to other priorities, but company spokesman Morgan Crinklaw issued a statement insisting the research was productive and economic potential remains.
"The oil shale resource in this part of the country (northwest Colorado, northeast Utah and southwest Wyoming) is huge," he wrote, "and we are confident that cost-effective and environmentally responsible technologies will be developed to ultimately produce these reserves."
Opponents of federal leasing say Utah's supportive stance makes clear that nothing beyond state or private lands is necessary for companies to prove they can make a buck and then ask for federal lands on which to do it. In fact, Salt Lake City-based WRA attorney Rob Dubuc urged state regulators to slow down on permits for mines such as Red Leaf Resources' Uinta Basin project until they understand the environmental consequences.
Red Leaf plans to heat shale above 700 degrees in clay-lined cells, one after the other, reclaiming the surface along the way. It's a first, Dubuc said, and "the company and the state have little idea what the impact would be on our water, our environment or our communities."
A Red Leaf official did not return a call seeking comment Friday, but at the governor's energy development summit last month a company vice president of energy and environment called the project on state lands a "low-water, no-wastewater" concern that could produce oil by 2014.
Oil shale question-and-comment sessions:
Silt, Colo.: 7 p.m. Monday, BLM Colorado River Office, 2300 River Frontage Rd.
Vernal: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Westin Plaza Hotel, 1684 W. Highway 40.
Salt Lake City, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Grand America Hotel, 555 S. Main St.
Rock Springs, Wyo.: 7 p.m. Thursday, BLM Rock Springs Field Office, 280 Highway 191 North.