Groups reiterate support for oil shale development plan

Brad McCloud
Bonnie Petersen
Diane Schwenke
Diane Schwenke
Craig Meis
Craig Meis, Mesa County Commissioner

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Mesa County and three other groups have have joined in what’s characterized as a majority of organizational support for plans to set aside a large swath of public land in the West for potential oil shale development

The groups support the same preferred alternative included in a programmatic environmental impact statement completed in 2008. Under that alternative, a total of about 2 million acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming would be available for potential leasing and development of oil shale and another 430,000 acres would be available for development of tar sands.

“It was the right decision then, it’s the right decision now,” said Brad McCloud, executive director of Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale (ECCOS), a grassroots group based in Grand Junction.

McCloud discussed the issue at a press conference where he was joined by Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20; Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce; and Craig Meis, chairman of the Mesa County Board of Commissioners.

According to a news release from ECCOS, the group joined with the chamber and Club 20 in reviewing letters submitted by government and nongovernmental organizations as part of a second environmental analysis of oil shale development. Forty-five of those letters supported Alternative 1, the no-action option reverting to the preferred alternative in the 2008 analysis. Four other alternatives in 2012 analysis received a combined 25 letters of support from organizations.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced earlier this year the preferred alternative changed in the 2012 analysis. Under Alternative 2B, total available acreage for oil shale leasing and development would shrink to 462,000 acres. In Colorado, available acreage would decline from 346,000 acres to 35,308 acres.

The Department of Interior agreed to conduct a new environmental analysis of oil shale and tar sands development as the result of a lawsuit settlement.

Petersen said Club 20 — a coalition of governments, businesses and individuals in Western Colorado — long has been involved in the debate over oil shale because of the potential for development in the region.

There’s more oil shale in the United States than the rest of the world combined, and the richest deposits of all are located in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. By one estimate, oil shale and tar sands resources in the Green River Formation in the three states contain the equivalent of 4 trillion barrels of oil.

Petersen said oil shale development could be a “huge” economic driver in the region in promoting business, jobs and tax revenues.

But limiting access to oil shale resources could also limit the investments and research that will be needed develop the technology to economically extract oil from oil shale, Petersen said. “It’s time to allow industry to earn how to develop this resource.”

Petersen also questioned why the BLM’s preferred alternative changed so significantly since the 2012 analysis used much of the same information in the 2008 analysis.

Meis said the process has been frustrating because Mesa County worked closely with the BLM  and other federal agencies in preparing the 2008 environmental impact statement and supported the preferred alternative.

Conducting a second environmental analysis was unnecessary, Meis said. “It was simply a waste of a tremendous amount of time and resources.”

The process has broader implications, Meis added, given that public lands cover nearly three-fourths of Mesa County.

If those lands are locked up, an important component of economic development could be hampered, he said. “We’re pretty much stuck here.”

Schwenke said major oil shale development has been considered three times now, so the concept is hardly novel. “This is not our first rodeo with oil shale,” she said.

But research and development into oil shale is more promising than before and should be allowed to proceed, Schwenke said. “We think oil shale really does have a future.”

She compared the situation to the technical innovations in natural gas drilling that tapped a far more abundant supply than was previously thought possible.

Reducing access to oil shale could hamper research, though, if the energy companies making that investment don’t have a reasonable expectation of profiting from subsequent production, she said. “We would like to see the R&D happen.”

McCloud said ECCOS and the other groups conducted the press conference to draw attention to organizational support for the alternative that would open up public lands in the West for oil shale and tar sands leasing and development. “The people have spoken twice now on this issue.”

McCloud said federal regulators should listen. “We’re hoping this will make a difference.”