Wild lands spared from ‘dirtiest fuel on the planet’…for now

Oil shale. Courtesy US DOE.

The Wilderness Society was pleased with the Secretary of the Interior’s Feb. 25 announcement to cancel plans to award leases of western land for oil shale research and development.

The original decision to expand the existing research program was rushed out the door in the waning days of the Bush Administration, before the environmental impacts of such a proposal had been properly weighed.

Oil shale is a problematic potential energy resource with a troubled history. While many attempts have been made to develop oil shale throughout history, it has yet to be proven economically viable. Worse, it is an extremely dirty fuel source.

Secretary Salazar’s remedy slows down the process, giving the Interior Department and the public a much-needed opportunity to weigh in on the oil shale research and development program before any future leases are issued. However, it does not put an end to efforts to develop the dirty fuel—the Bush commercial leasing regulations are still on the books and companies holding existing research and development leases have that sweetheart royalty rate locked in.

Producing a liquid fuel from oil shale entails heating solid rock to temperatures in excess or 600°F to liquefy the waxy kerogen locked inside. The liquified kerogen can then be processed for conversion into synthetic petroleum fuels.

Because of the large amounts of energy needed to process oil shale, as many as 10 new dirty coal power plants might be needed in the states of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

The dirtiest fuel

Liquid fuels derived from oil shale, often called the dirtiest fuels on the planet, emit as much as 50 percent more global warming gases than conventional gasoline.

Much also remains to be understood about how an oil shale industry would function. A significant amount of water will likely be consumed during extraction and subsequent processing—some estimate enough to serve two cities the size of Denver—even though the three states affected (Colorado, Utah and Wyoming) are located in the semi-arid West, where water supplies already are stressed.

The Bureau of Land Management hurtled ahead with oil shale regulations despite not knowing how much energy and water might be required, how much water and air pollution could be produced, or what the costs to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming’s infrastructure, communities and economies might be.

Oil shale development continues

Halting these leases will give the public and the Interior Department more time to examine oil shale leases. However, it does not address the underlying problem of existing Bush administration regulations that fast track the development of the oil shale industry before technology exists to process it an environmentally safe way. As such, the Wilderness Society has filed suit against those regulations.

“Secretary Salazar has a golden opportunity to make a strong statement about oil shale and our public lands by building on this action and overturning the Bush administration’s deficient regulations. We will continue to encourage the Secretary to do so,” said Chase Huntley, a Wilderness Society energy policy analyst.

For now, the Department of Interior is seeking input from the public regarding a second round of research and development leases. That comment period began Feb. 27 and will be open for 90 days.

photo: Oil shale. Courtesy US DOE.