The dirtiest fuel in the world

Piceance Basin, Colorado. Courtesy Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

We’ve been down this road before. When Exxon terminated the Colony Oil Shale Project in 1982, Americans living around the Piceance Basin near Parachute Creek, Colorado began referring to that day as Black Sunday due to the disastrous effects it had on their communities and livelihoods.

The oil shale project began in 1964 and gathered steam when Congress established the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and other subsidies to shale developers in response to the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and its resulting calls for “energy independence.”

In the end, shale developers, namely Exxon, could not find a way to generate oil from oil shale in an economically profitable way and the “Black Sunday” bust cost more than 2,000 western Colorado residents their jobs.

This was not he first time developers have tried and failed to develop this elusive and unlikely dirty energy resource and it may not be the last.

Remarkably, industry has once again trotted out the same false and misleading arguments that oil shale development is environmentally and economically viable. Media accounts sometimes depict this resource as ready-to-go, despite decades of fruitless research and failed attempts to create a commercial oil shale industry.

In truth there has yet to be a shred of science to demonstrate that this dirty fuel can be developed in an environmentally sound way — let alone in a fashion that does not waste taxpayer money.

A high price to pay

Chief among the concerns remain the big unknowns of how oil shale development might stress the water and energy needs of the arid states where shale is found. This is especially worrisome at a time when global warming promises to increase the frequency and severity of drought in these same places.

Communities throughout the Colorado River Basin rely on water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, yet oil shale corporations have already begun locking up these key resources in the event they find a technological breakthrough.

From a national perspective, oil shale represents a push toward the wrong energy source at the wrong time. Instead of placing the United States at the forefront of sustainable, green energies, our nation’s push to develop oil shale would tie us to one of the dirtiest fuels conceivable and exponentially raise our carbon dioxide emissions.

So why then are we even considering this resource? Quite simply, the Bush administration pushed through last minute oil shale regulations in order to benefit their friends in industry.

Spent shale after retorting in Uinta Basin, Utah. Courtesy EIS Information Center.Despite the fact that neither Shell nor any other companies have developed a viable and environmentally safe commercial process for extracting oil from oil shale, the Bush administration prematurely issued regulations to allow for commercial oil shale development on public lands over the objections of the Governors of Colorado and Wyoming, many local elected officials, agricultural and municipal water users, the agricultural community and other local business leaders. They did this even though industry already privately owns thousands of acres of land with oil shale potential and still has not developed a viable and environmentally safe technology.

The taxpayer heist

The Bush rules were deficient in numerous respects. In particular, they rob American taxpayers by imposing exceedingly low federal royalties — as low as 5% compared to the 12.5% to 16% royalty charged by the federal government for onshore and offshore oil and gas leases. Not surprisingly, they also include vague environmental protection requirements because we do not yet even know what a commercial oil shale industry might look like.

Among the decision makers who attempted to slow the federal government’s headlong rush to push oil shale at the expense of local communities was former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. Now Obama’s Secretary of Interior, Salazar has drawn fire for his February decision to suspend the Bush administration's new round of oil shale research and development leases that locked in industry-friendly rules.

The kicker? The Bush Administration added an “addendum” to already existing leases for “research, development and demonstration” issued in 2005. The addendum allows the lessees to choose whether or not any future commercial development on public lands will be governed by the Bush rules, or rules adopted by the Obama Administration, or any future program determined by Congress. This addendum essentially locks in the Bush administration’s industry-friendly rules on leases for oil shale research and development and hamstrings Sec. Salazar, keeping him from altering the program to better fit the nation’s interest.

How to stop the oil shale fiasco

Windpower at sunset. Courtesy Creative Commons.We must stop oil shale development from occurring under the lax rules drafted by the Bush administration and instead ensure we understand its economic and environmental impacts before embarking on this road. Salazar has also signaled his intention to prioritize the development of clean, renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal, and to take a more prudent approach to oil shale development. Yet he needs our support in overcoming the powerful special interests arrayed against him if he is to explain to the nation just how disastrous a fuel source oil shale could be.

Through our collective voice, we can help Salazar determine oil shale’s proper place in our nation’s energy portfolio and seek to answer the myriad questions its development poses before charging off in pursuit of this perennial will-o'-the-wisp. Take action now!

Piceance Basin, Colorado. Courtesy Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Spent shale after retorting in Uinta Basin, Utah. Courtesy EIS Information Center.
Windpower at sunset. Courtesy Creative Commons.