Oil Shale Update: Small Potatoes

by Matt Shudtz

March 03, 2009

Last Wednesday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the Bureau of Land Management is going to "review and reconsider" the oil shale leases proposed in the waning days of the Bush Administration.  The Bush proposal would have potentially opened 1.9 million acres of land in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for oil shale development and would have locked in a paltry royalty rate.  The Obama Administration is going to take 90 days of public comment on the shortcomings of the old plan and then come up with a new one, potentially in a very short time frame.


Salazar’s and BLM’s comments on the oil shale research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) program do not paint a clear picture about the Obama Administration’s agenda. Last week, Salazar spoke to the National Governors’ Association and told them that oil shale has “great potential” and “that the Obama administration is not against developing any of those resources. … Let's put everything on the table.”  Yet the Federal Register notice withdrawing the Bush Administration proposal asks for public comment on a wide range of issues that could derail oil shale development, “including, but not limited to, comments on lease size, lease duration, royalty rate after conversion to a commercial lease, environmental and economic diligence, and whether there is a need for additional preference right lease acreage.”


Salazar’s plan to re-think the oil shale RD&D program is consistent with what appears to be the Obama Administration’s approach to America’s energy future – considering all options, without prejudice to even the dirtiest or most expensive forms of energy.  And the plan is entirely consistent with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which requires Interior to manage federal lands under a “multiple-use” mandate.  (Under that statute, multiple-use means “a combination of balanced and diverse resource uses that takes into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values.”)


But what we need now is a more progressive approach to energy development and the use of our public lands.  According to BLM’s own assessment, commercial development of the oil shale deposits will take dozens of years, require hundreds of miles of new roads, power lines, and pipelines, necessitate the creation of several gigawatts of new electricity capacity, and strain the area’s already scarce water resources.  Canada has already started commercial development of tar sands (a geological cousin of oil shale) and evidence of the negative environmental and human health effects is starting to pile up .


Last week, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama spoke of changing the way we produce and use energy.  And for months we’ve been hearing about changing the failed policies of the last eight years. Yet BLM seems resigned to considering minor changes to royalty rates and lease sizes. Such policy changes would be an underwhelming complement to the President’s rhetoric about a transformed energy future for our country, and they would do little to improve the Department of Interior’s mismanagement of our public lands.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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