Oil shale investigation is encouraging

Oil shale. Courtesy DOE.

The Department of the Interior is calling for an investigation of a Bush-era deal on oil shale leases that grossly favored industry over American taxpayers.

The investigation, announced Oct. 20, will look into excessively low royalty rates and other benefits that were tacked onto oil shale research-and-development leases in the final days of Bush administration.

In 2008, the Bush administration had issued regulations to allow for commercial oil shale development on public lands in western states over the objections of the Governors of Colorado and Wyoming. To date, there has been no evidence to demonstrate that oil shale can be developed in an environmentally safe way.

Then in a further act of generosity to the industry, the administration pushed through last minute “addenda” to “Research, Development and Demonstration” leases issued when Gale Norton was Secretary that lock in low royalty rates for the lessees if they exercise their rights under the lease to convert them to commercial leases. This signified a gift to oil and gas industry at the expense of Americans who would receive little economic return for the environmental impacts of oil shale development.

Chase Huntley, an energy policy analyst with The Wilderness Society called the investigation announcement “very encouraging.” Oil shale has a long history plagued with scandal and cronyism. The Wilderness Society has been calling for such an inquiry since the day this giveaway was handed over to the companies holding research and development leases on public lands.

Oil shale is one of the dirtiest fuels in the world. Its development would contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions at a time when pollution reductions are most needed. It would also require extensive use of water, exacerbating water resource issues in arid western states.

As research from Western Resource Advocates (WRA) has shown, oil shale development would have profound effects on western water that have not yet been addressed.

The Interior Department also announced a new opportunity for companies seeking federal lands for research, development, and demonstration of oil shale technologies. Although ranchers, and conservation organizations including The Wilderness Sociey question the necessity of making additional public lands open to oil shale development given the significant oil shale resources already under private control — millions of acres — it is heartening to see this new solicitation reflects a commitment to science-based decision-making not political favoritism.