BLM proposes scaling back oil shale, tar sands development

The Bureau of Land Management on Friday proposed scaling back a George W. Bush-era plan for development of oil shale and tar sands on Western lands, drawing the ire of Republicans and industry groups.

The plan would reduce the available acreage for oil-shale and tar-sands development by about three-fourths in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in an attempt to protect environmentally sensitive areas. It also would pull back the Bush-era proposal to make oil-shale leases available for commercial development, instead continuing to lease them only for research-and-experimentation purposes.

BLM announced last year it would redo the Bush-era plan as part of a settlement in a lawsuit from environmental groups concerned about impacts of oil-shale development. The bureau said today it also considered concerns that the process of converting kerogen, the organic matter extracted from oil shale, into petroleum liquids hadn’t yet become commercially viable in the United States.

“Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use, and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil shale development, we are proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a statement. “If oil shale is to be viable on a commercial scale, we must take a common-sense approach that encourages research and development first.”

Republicans and industry groups said the plan would hold back development of a job-creating, energy-producing resource.

“The distinction between the pro-American job policies of House Republicans and the anti-American energy policies of the Obama Administration could not be clearer,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in an emailed statement.

The proposal represents an affront to the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy President Barack Obama espoused in his State of the Union address, Reid Porter, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an oil-and-gas lobbying group, said in an emailed statement.

“The administration is continuing actions that send negative signals to industry and capital markets at exactly the wrong time for the American public,” Porter said. “Consistent and stable regulations are needed to promote the commercial development of oil shale, an important and strategic national resource.”

Areas of the three states the lease plan covers are estimated to hold more than 1 trillion barrels of oil, though not all of it may be recoverable.

The BLM also said the U.S. Geological Survey would study how commercial oil-shale development would affect groundwater and surface water systems.

Some Democrats from Western states said they agreed with BLM’s decision to hold off on commercial leases for now.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said “a number of unanswered questions” regarding oil shale should be answered before opening up lands to commercial development.

“Fully understanding the demands of oil-shale development on Colorado’s water and local communities is essential to ensuring responsible development,” Udall said in a statement.

The plan announced Friday would reduce the available oil-shale acreage from 2 million in the 2008 Bush administration plan to 462,000 acres, and reduce the tar-sands acreage from 431,000 to 91,000.

The GOP-controlled House Natural Resources Committee earlier this week passed a bill that would have required the Interior Department to issue five commercial oil-shale leases by 2016 and keep issuing research-and-experimentation leases.

They’re planning to tie that bill and two others that would expand oil-and-gas drilling to upcoming legislation to reauthorize surface transportation programs.