On the heels of Congress lifting a spending limitation designed to give oil shale research more time to go forward, Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT) has been touring the state declaring that Utah is open for oil shale business. That’s interesting because last we checked, the industry had not yet finished researching where the huge amount of water and electricity necessary for a commercial-scale oil shale program will come from. Such concerns have prompted the governor’s own director of public lands policy to express serious reservations about the availability of Utah’s water supplies to support such an industry.
World-class deposits of oil shale are found in the Green River Basin of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Despite its name, there is no oil in these oil shale deposits — there is only kerogen, a waxy precursor to oil that must be baked for long periods at extreme heat to release anything we can burn. If the process sounds more like science fiction than science, that’s because commercially viable techniques to extract kerogen are still in the research and development phase. Industry representatives admit that commercial production of oil shale remains years if not decades in the future.
On October 1, Congress unwisely let the funding limitation expire because of the political pressure brought by oil shale boosters in the Bush administration and Congress who wanted to finalize rules that will govern commercial oil shale leasing and production before a new president takes office. These folks are clearly playing political games attempting to regulate an industry that does not even exist.
Unfortunately, these games come at the cost of good governance. One of the primary unknowns is how to address the extreme energy inputs — and resulting emissions — that a commercial oil shale industry would require. According to research presented to the 2007 Oil Shale Symposium hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, the technologies under consideration could require upwards of three times as much energy to produce a finished barrel of fuel as conventional oil does. On top of that, the process would emit significantly more global warming pollution than conventional oil, an about-face on this urgent national security issue.
The proposed Bush administration regulations offer the industry bargain basement royalty rates that could eventually cost taxpayers dearly. Those in opposition — including the governors of Colorado and Wyoming, taxpayer groups and local mayors — know the toll of rushing ahead, having gone through it once before when the Colony Oil Shale project in Colorado shut down on Black Sunday of 1982 and devastated local economies.