E. Utah counties call on Obama to free up more oil shale lands

Published April 18, 2012 6:24 pm
Energy • Uintah County says BLM made "sweetheart deal with environmentalists."
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Eastern Utah counties are so steamed about federal plans to pull back hundreds of thousands of acres from potential oil-shale leasing that they're banding with their Wyoming and Colorado neighbors to demand the Obama administration reverse course.

The Uintah County Commission passed a resolution last week calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to keep vast parts of the Uinta Basin open to shale leasing.

The BLM has proposed curtailing the leasing zone for oil shale and tar sands, first approved at the end of the Bush administration, from about 2.3 million acres to 553,000 acres until companies prove a technology to extract oil from rock is feasible.

"BLM entered into a sweetheart deal with the environmental community," Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said Wednesday, noting that the new plan resulted from a lawsuit settlement directing the agency to look anew at the leasing program.

The resolution alleges the BLM is bucking congressional direction to start leasing the rock, and that in doing so, it's harming America's energy security.

"[T]he rising price of gasoline, coupled with ever-increasing loss of good-paying jobs due to the administration's policies against energy development on Western lands," the resolution states, "result[s] in increasing hardships for families and the local economy."

Opponents of wide-scale leasing say the resolution is littered with inaccuracies, starting with the statements that "development and production of oil from oil shale has been proven beyond a doubt to be technologically and economically feasible" and that "it requires little to no water."

For use as oil, the rock must be heated either in place or as crushed ore. It can be done, companies have proved, but doubters point to Chevron abandoning its Colorado test lease this year as evidence that it's not economical.

Companies looking to test Utah shale, such as Enefit and Red Leaf, say they won't need much water. But Sierra Club organizer Tim Wagner said they haven't offered any evidence.

The BLM plan allows plenty of acreage to test technologies, Wagner said, but limits the potential for ripping up lands or entering a speculative boom-and-bust economic cycle before the industry is proved.

"The counties," Wagner said, "are taking a very radical position in telling the BLM to scrap this process, because it's very reasonable."

Haphazard test leasing could repeat some of the mistakes of unfruitful 1980s Colorado tests, warned Ken Theis, Utah coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

"The Tavaputs and Book Cliffs under consideration [for mining] are highly valued wildlife lands," Theis said. "The impacts that occurred in Colorado show that it's not a benign situation. They did have significant impacts to the mule deer and elk populations over there."

Other counties — including Utah's Duchesne and Daggett, Wyoming's Lincoln and Colorado's Garfield and Mesa — are on board with substantially the same resolution. McKee said the joint effort sprang from a March meeting in Vernal, where he invited the other counties and Kathleen Clarke, public lands adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, to discuss oil-shale strategy.

The meeting went into a closed session to discuss the strategy, which Wagner argued violates the state open-meetings law. McKee said it was allowed because the topic involved legal strategy for potential litigation.


Lease plan

The Bureau of Land Management's environmental study revising lease acreage for oil shale and tar sands greatly reduces lands available for proving the resources' value:

Oil shale's leasing zone would shrink from 1.9 million acres to 462,000 in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Tar sands' zone would go from 431,000 to 91,000 acres, all in Utah.

The plan is available for public comment until May 4.

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