Senate candidates examine oil shale |

Senate candidates examine oil shale

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – As gas prices accelerate past $4 a gallon, oil shale is fast becoming the focus of a furious national debate. Even President Bush has weighed in on the subject, calling for the removal of barriers to oil shale production.

The issues surrounding oil shale are key as U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, and Bob Schaffer, a former three-term Republican congressman from Fort Collins, battle to replace U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, who is retiring.

When the dust clears late in the night on Nov. 4, the winner of Allard’s Senate seat will be poised to have significant influence over the future of oil shale development in the state.

Udall, who is Eagle County’s congressmen, and Schaffer spoke to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent late last month about oil shale and other energy-related issues affecting the Western Slope, including whether communities in the area should receive a larger share of revenues generated by energy development.

Both men expect the issues surrounding oil shale to play a role in this year’s U.S. Senate race, especially as gas prices continue to surge higher and higher.

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The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the amount of oil locked up in federal shale reserves in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah has more than 50 times the country’s proven conventional oil reserves and nearly five times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

“I would ask the president not to play politics with oil shale, but listen to the people of western Colorado who have to live with the consequence of irresponsible oil shale development,” Udall said.

Schaffer said the demand nationally and internationally is growing, and Coloradans sit on top of a vast resource, and “that demand is going to drive lots of controversy.”

Schaffer said he has been a strong advocate for renewable and alternative energy, as well as a broad-based approach to conventional energy harvest and hydrocarbon development that includes new and advanced methods, such as oil shale extraction.

“It is a technology that offers promise,” he said.

Udall said he thinks oil shale “has the potential as an energy source,” but he added that research and development into the resource’s extraction must be completed first.

Three companies have five, 160-acre parcels in the Piceance Basin to test oil shale extraction technologies. Shell Exploration and Production has three of the leases, while Chevron and AMSO LLC each have one lease. However, all three said it could be another decade before they could decide whether it is commercially viable to develop the resource in Colorado.

“It is vital to the well-being of the Western Slope, that we finish this research and development before we fast-track large-scale oil shale development that could use enormous amounts of water, unlimited amounts of electricity and ruin our western landscape,” Udall said.

President Bush and many Republicans, including Allard, have called for legislation that would overturn language put into a $555-billion spending package late last year by U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar. The rider stipulated that no federal funds could be used to finalize oil shale leasing, development and operational regulations. That moratorium will expire at the end of September.

“We are prepared to fight off attempts to strip it (away),” Udall said. “There is no need to fast-track oil shale regulation development and run over the people on the West Slope. We all know about Black Sunday.”

Udall was referring to the day Exxon closed its oil shale operations near Parachute. That decision sent 2,300 people into unemployment and the local economy into a tailspin.

Schaffer said Colorado deserves a thoughtful, forward-thinking approach to energy development where oil shale is concerned.

“Having state leaders fold their arms and say “no because we said so,” is not a prudent strategy,” Schaffer said. “We need a more mature strategy that calls on scientists, investors and the state of Colorado, as well as state regulators and federal regulators, to as quickly as possible design and develop efficient, environmentally safe and economically prudent plans to move the nation forward.”

Udall said counties already affected by oil and gas development ” such as Garfield County, which saw permits for wells in the area surge by 220 percent from 2004 to 2007 ” should have a “prominent place in the line” from money generated by natural gas development on federal and state lands.

The Bureau of Land Management is estimating the Aug. 14 Roan Plateau lease sale could generate between $150 million and $300 million. About half of that money is expected to be returned to Colorado.

The money the state receives from gas development on federal lands ought to go to strengthen our state in a way that the “legislature, the governor and others determine ” whether it is to invest in our schools, our highways or our transit system,” Udall said.

Schaffer said Colorado needs to be aggressive about getting funds from energy development back to the state and to communities affected by drilling. He criticized Salazar and Udall for voting in favor of the spending bill Congress passed last year, which also included language that reduced the amount states receive from oil and gas production on federal leases by 2 percent.

“If you’ve got wayward politicians who are giving incoming revenue away to the federal government and voting to do this, then that’s a problem,” Schaffer said. “The easy answer is to replace them or not vote to promote them to the U.S. Senate.”

Salazar, Udall and Allard have since launched efforts to restore the traditional 50-50 split, which has been the standard sharing agreement the federal government has had with the states since the early 1920s.

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