Oil Shale: setting the rules of the road before there’s a road

Mount Garfield oil shale. Photo by Doc Searls.

French satirist Voltaire once cautioned against hasty action saying, “Burn not your house to frighten away the mice.” Pushing a scorched Earth energy policy during its last days in office, the Bush Administration is prematurely rushing toward commercial leasing and production of oil shale resources in the Rocky Mountain West. The Department of the Interior Nov. 18 finalized several regulations for a commercial oil shale development program, despite the objections of the Governors of Colorado and Wyoming, federal and state agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service, and the concerns of affected local communities. In my view, this action burns the house to get at the mice; It’s an ill-informed, politically-driven decision regulating an oil shale industry that doesn’t yet exist.

How can we set the “rules of the road” to ensure development proceeds in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner without knowing what technology the industry will utilize?

Oil shale is a sedimentary rock which when heated to extreme temperatures releases kerogen, a substance that can be processed and refined into petroleum products. Ton for ton, oil shale is a very poor source of energy. It requires tremendous energy inputs over months or even years to melt the kerogen from the rock, all of which is expected to come from highly-polluting coal-fired power plants that will cause upwards of 50% more global warming causing emissions. Oil shale production also requires much more water than the arid regions where it is found (Utah, Wyoming and Colorado) can provide. It requires three or more barrels for every barrel of oil extracted—and serious questions remain about where the water (and who the water rights) will come from.

Despite these major unknowns, the Interior Department Nov. 18 put forth severely flawed regulations that will govern how oil shale leasing and production will take place. The Department must ensure the taxpayer a fair return and put in place considerations to avoid unacceptable environmental impacts. However, not enough is known about the technologies that may be employed to ensure these duties are fulfilled.

Furthermore, the regulations lock in royalty rates that are far below what the oil and gas industry pays for conventional drilling. It is irresponsible to move ahead with this rulemaking despite a lack of meaningful results from research already taking place on federal lands. Put simply, these rules are more about greasing the skids for oil companies than protection of taxpayers or the public lands.

Hoping to go unnoticed, the Department also will approve land management plan revisions to designate more than 2.5 million acres of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming as open for oil shale development. No doubt the Department is hoping to avoid answering tough questions about why they circumvented the public protest period required by law and under what authority they were able to utterly ignore the State of Colorado’s significant objections.

This action represents the last chapter of a cruel fiction perpetrated oil shale boosters that promises energy independence and lower fuel prices by tapping this so called treasure. Unfortunately, this leave-no-stone-unburned policy has no hope of accomplishing either of these goals in the near future—if ever—and is instead a distraction from the need for real energy solutions.

The gasoline price surge of this past summer should have taught us the pain and brutality of poor energy planning. With the approval of these regulations, the Department of Interior promises only deeper dependence on fossil fuels. Poised to hold a match to the curtains on their way out the door, the Department’s misguided oil shale policy is truly scary.