Oil shale offers little more than a hoax to taxpayers

In the wake of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s actions to restore science and good stewardship to the federal government’s oil shale and oil and gas leasing programs, several groups ― many with connections to oil and gas companies ― continue to sound a false alarm that such steps will lead us toward a greater dependence on foreign energy sources.

Such claims could not be further from the truth and serve only as a means to divide Americans to advance the aims of special interests such as the fossil fuel industry.

As President Obama recently remarked at the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department:

“Throughout our history, there's been a tension between those who've sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations, and those who have sought to profit from these resources. But I'm here to tell you this is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. That is what we must do.”

The facts support President Obama’s analysis.

When Sec. Salazar made his announcement on oil shale, he recognized that oil shale development in the United States remains years if not decades away from commercial and environmental viability (this according to various public statements by Royal Dutch Shell, the RAND Corporation, and even the Bush administration’s BLM).

That’s why the millions of acres already in the hands of companies like Shell and Exxon-Mobil have never seen any oil shale development.

Using an oft-repeated 1.2 to 1.9 trillion barrel figure to describe our oil shale deposits perpetrates a cruel hoax on the public — there are billions of tons of gold in the oceans yet we can’t figure out how to extract this resource either.

Many oil shale advocates have vocally asserted that Sec. Salazar decided to halt any oil shale action. This is simply not the case.

In issuing his thoughtful decision, Sec. Salazar said, “We need to push forward aggressively with research, development and demonstration of oil shale technologies to see if we can find a safe and economically viable way to unlock these resources on a commercial scale.” Sec. Salazar’s move addressed a premature decision by the BLM. In Bush’s waning days, a second round of leases was pushed through not to expand research and development — the past Administration turned down more than a dozen applications for such leases — but rather to benefit industry backers. It could have led to a headlong rush into a commercial oil shale industry that can’t actually produce oil and will have unknown impacts on Wyoming, Utah and Colorado’s environment, local economies, water supplies and energy resources.

This decision puts the focus back where it should be — on the companies who currently hold leases for federal lands and significant private resources but have yet to demonstrate meaningful results.

Yet for industry proponents, the twisting of the truth remains a common practice even when it’s not in the interest of the American people.

That’s because for them, more lands held in reserve mean better bottom lines.

Take their assertion that the oil and gas industry must have increased access to offshore and onshore oil reserves, even in places that are environmentally unique, support significant ecosystems or contain cultural resources. In reality, the oil and gas industry has plenty of “access” in the United States. Onshore, industry holds 45 million acres but has not developed 33 million acres while, offshore, industry holds rights to 38 million acres but has only developed on 8 million acres.

There’s no doubt some of our public lands must be used for energy development but the oil and gas industry and their mouthpieces are only preying on the fear of average Americans when they suggest they need more lands and more political support. In reality, industry can barely keep up with the lands they already hold leases to. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay for a new industry that remains decades away from any proven results?

We do need energy independence but such a grand step will not come from destroying our pristine heritage to get at a finite and dwindling resource. Instead, we must embrace a new energy economy based on fuel efficiency, renewable energy sources and American ingenuity.