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County wants BLM to open more land for development of oil shale, tar sand

Sun Advocate associate editor

For millions of years after the last dinosaur died, a gigantic tropical fresh-water lake covered eastern Utah and the western parts of Wyoming and Colorado. Algae in the lake did what algae do best: grow by absorbing carbon dioxide, and taking tons of carbon with them to the bottom when they died.

Today, what's left of those patient plants is oil shale and tar sands. Those buried deposits contain the equivalent of what some say could be 8 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be extracted, processed and burned for generations in combustion engines.

That's 8 million million barrels.

However, it turns out that Nature has stacked one treasure on top of another over the eons. On top of much of that stored hydrocarbon bonanza is public land with a value as habitat, outdoor recreation and wilderness.

Those are the battle lines. In the latest skirmish along those lines, the Carbon County Commission has joined forces with state and local governments on that ancient lake bed who are demanding that more of the land be opened for oil shale and tar sand (OSTS) development.

Last Wednesday, the commission passed a resolution criticizing the Bureau of Land Management for what the county asserts is an unnecessary and illegal restriction of that development. The resolution contends that the BLM, in proposing only designated portions to be considered for OSTS, is breaking the law. The acreage that could be opened is far short of what would have been allowed under an earlier plan in 2008, the resolution states.

That programmatic environmental impact study was prepared after a three-year effort with input from 14 local, state and federal agencies. It would have opened 2 million acres in the three-state region for oil shale and 430,000 acres for tar sands development.

The county document notes that Congress has repeatedly forbidden the BLM from spending money to "implement, administer or enforce Secretarial Order 3310." This order, issued by the Interior Department in December 2010, angered local and state governments and their Congressional delegations because they considered it to be a unilateral move by the executive branch to make law regarding wild lands. The order was essentially a reversal of the 2008 PEIS.

The new PEIS, issued earlier this year, continues the restrictions that would have been imposed under Order 3310, the county maintains.

The county resolution also states that the BLM is acting in violation of its own Resource Management Plan because it the new proposal is a "piece-meal revision" of the plan without required public input.

The commission is blaming more than the BLM and Interior Department. "The Department of Energy has basically abdicated the responsibility Congress placed upon it to defend and uphold a viable oil shale energy program in America, leaving it instead to the BLM encumbered by a host of anti-oil shale pro-wilderness groups steering BLM's every move."

The county insists that that oil shale technology has advanced to the point where it is not only economically feasible, but requires very little water. Water consumption and process cost have been major impediments to development.

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