BLM finalizes oil shale leasing plan |

BLM finalizes oil shale leasing plan

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” The Bureau of Land Management has finalized a plan that would open up about 359,800 acres in northwest Colorado to potential commercial oil shale leasing.

About 2 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah would be available for oil shale leasing under a land-use plan described in a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS), which was published in the Federal Register on Thursday. Colorado’s oil shale deposits are concentrated in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties.

The BLM will wait at least 60 days after publication of the PEIS before it issues a record of decision approving those land-use changes.

“The goal of the BLM’s oil shale program is to promote economically viable and environmentally sound production of oil shale on Western lands, where we estimate deposits hold the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of oil ” enough to meet U.S. demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years,” said BLM Director Jim Caswell in an announcement of the agency’s completion of the final PEIS.

The lure of that much oil trapped within shale deposits in the West has become the center of political controversy in an election year that has largely focused on the issues of energy and drilling.

Republicans have targeted U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, for criticism because of their support of a measure that prohibits the BLM from issuing final oil shale leasing regulations.

That ban is set to expire at the end of September, but Udall has said he is going to work to keep it in place. That position has drawn criticism from Bob Schaffer, a former congressman from Fort Collins, who is running against Udall in their battle to replace U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

Leasing alternatives

The final PEIS is substantially similar to a draft version that the agency released in late December, according to the BLM. The agency said it received more than 105,000 comments on that draft, which resulted in “addition of clarifying text to the final (PEIS), but without significant changes to the land-use plan decision proposed in the draft.”

In the agency’s December draft PEIS, the BLM outlined a no-action alternative for oil shale leasing in Colorado. Another alternative would have designated 40,325 acres open to possible oil shale leasing in Colorado. A third alternative ” described as Alternative B ” would open 359,798 acres in Colorado to oil shale development.

“The BLM has identified Alternative B as the proposed plan amendment,” according to a notice in the Federal Register on Thursday.

No leasing would be allowed in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, in units of the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, or in areas of critical environmental concern closed to mineral development, according to the BLM.

Congress required the BLM to develop the PEIS after it passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That act declared “oil shale and other unconventional fuels to be strategically important domestic energy sources that should be developed to reduce the nation’s growing dependence on imported oil,” according to the BLM.

Currently, Shell Exploration and Production, Chevron and AMSO LLC have five 160-acre BLM oil shale research and development leases in the Piceance Basin in northwest Colorado. Oil Shale Exploration Co. also has an experimental lease in Utah.

The companies conducting oil shale extraction research on the Colorado leases say it could be 10 to 15 years before they may decide to begin commercial production of the resource.

Moving forward

The BLM said the PEIS is just one task that must be completed before any commercial oil shale or tar sands leasing could begin. Site specific environmental analysis would also have to be conducted before any lease may be issued.

But possible resistance from the Environmental Protection Agency may be an obstacle for the agency as it moves forward with a commercial oil shale and tar sands leasing program.

In comments submitted to the agency after the draft PEIS was released late last year, the EPA expressed concern that development of oil shale and tar sands may cause “significant, adverse impacts to air quality” and pose a potential danger to groundwater.

Those potential impacts may make it difficult for the EPA to support a “finding of no significant impact” for environmental analyses that the BLM may conduct in connection with its oil shale commercial leasing program, according to the comments from the EPA.

Several area residents and other environmental groups are concerned about the water and power that may be needed to drive the resource’s extraction, along with the possible impacts it could have on air and wildlife.

The initial reaction

Gov. Bill Ritter, in a prepared statement, assailed the final PEIS, saying that the federal government has “once again failed to act as a responsible partner for Colorado.

“Finalizing an environmental impact statement without any clear understanding of the environmental, community, economic and energy impacts of commercial-scale oil shale development is irresponsible, short-sighted and premature,” he said. “This does nothing to address gas prices at the pump today and has the potential to do much more harm than good.”

Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association, said publication of the PEIS is only a first step, and the public should not think that the issuance of the document will lead to a rush to develop oil shale.

“For BLM to lease oil shale lands in Colorado they must go through a number of time-consuming steps before even offering leases,” he said.

Vawter also said there are private oil shale lands that could be commercially developed, but that “there is no stampede to do so because it is still a risky and expensive business.”

“Companies are taking a measured approach to oil shale this time around,” Vawter said.

The PEIS is available online at

Contact Phillip Yates: 384-9117

Post Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

Most research into oil shale recovery in Colorado is focusing on in-situ processing, which means extracting hydrocarbons without having to mine oil shale.

When the oil shale industry was operating in Western Colorado before the bust of the early 1980s, the shale was mined out of the ground and then heated above the surface to make oil ” a process that required blazing hot temperatures.

Several companies are pursuing different strategies for recovering oil from the shale in Colorado. However, many in the area recognize Shell as the leader in that effort.

The current plan by Shell Exploration and Production is to lower electrical heaters into the rock formation and heat it to 650 to 700 degrees over a period of three to four years. When the oil shale gets to a suitable temperature, the hydrocarbon material ” called kerogen ” becomes a vapor. When it is pulled to the surface, it cools and condenses to produce a liquid that is two-thirds oil and one-third natural gas.

The company is also developing a “freeze-wall” technology that is intended to build a frozen wall that protects the surrounding water formations from hydrocarbons during the oil shale conversion process.

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