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BLM Conducts Scoping Sessions at Price to Accept Public Input on Tar Sands, Oil Shale Deposits

Sun Advocate general manager

If meetings conducted at Price last Thursday are an indication, individuals and businesses have significant interest in the oil shale and tar sands deposits in eastern Utah.

And as the country's energy appetite continues to grow, the nterest will probably become stronger.

Carbon County residents, business people and government leaders crowded into an afternoon session on tar sands and oil shale development scheduled Jan. 12 by the United States Bureau of Land Management at the Holiday Inn.

The evening meeting was about one-half full for a BLM presentation and the federal agency's request for comments from officials concerning the deposits.

"This is the first chance we have to talk to those who live near the deposits as we develop the programmatic environmental impact statement for the areas involved," explained Sherry Thompson who is heading up the BLM's attempt to draft a plan for use of the oil laden resources.

"The document we come up with will be a broad document so the present resource management plans will match up with it," added Thompson.

Almost three decades ago, the BLM completed an assessment of the deposits in eastern Utah, but the federal agency is looking to update the information with current input from citizens.

Immediately after the Arab embargo of 1973, there was talk that the oil rich deposits of eastern Utah, western Colorado and Wyoming could cut the U.S. dependency on foreign oil. However, little happened after oil supplies became more stable and allowed Americans to drive unfettered for the next 25 years.

But after last fall's gasoline prices exceeded $3 per gallon, the situation refocused the interest on the idea that trillions of barrels of oil stand ready to be liberated from the rocks of the central Rocky Mountain region.

The record high prices coupled with federal legislation making energy development easier has set in motion a machine to allowe the leasing of thousands of acres of federal land to companies seeking to profit from oil locked inside rock, clay and sand in the region.

Last Friday's two-sesion meeting at Price was a starting point for that type of action in the future.

Jim Kohler, a resource expert for the BLM, pointed out that oil shale and tar sands are not like the pools of the natural resource that rose out of the ground in Texas and Oklahoma in the early 20th century.

"The oil in these deposits will not just rise out of the ground as it did during the early days of oil development," explained Kohler referring to the ease of extracting from the ground in the early days of exploration in Oklahoma and Texas. "The process to extract the oil and gas from these deposits will take a great deal of effort, based on today's technology, and will also be costly."

Despite television reports about the trillions of gallons of gasoline that could be produced from the areas deposits, and stories about a company that is producing a million barrels a day of oil from shale deposits in Canada, the process just isn't that easy.

"First of all people need to understand the difference between what the resource is and the actual reserves are," said Kohler.. "The resource is what actually exists in the ground, but the reserves are what is economically feasible to recover."

The reserves are there; it is estimated that there are about two trillion barrels of oil (or two to three all the known reserves of traditional oil in the world) locked up in what is called the Green River Formation. However getting it out would be expensive, and not just in money.

With oil costing regularly over $60 a barrel now, the reason for excitement about this resource is understandable. But other costs to get it out include environmental damage (oil shale is generally mined with strip mining processes), the release of harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere during the processing and probably the most important and difficult problem of all in the dry west, the amount of water it would take to generate oil from the rock.

"With processes in the development stage they are at today it would take between 2-5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of immature oil," said Kohler.

In a region strapped for water to begin with, that could be a big factor in how development will proceed.

The meeting also highlighted the difference between oil shale and tar sands.

Oil shale generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bitumous materials that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in a chemical process called pyrolysis. Oil shale is somewhat like coal in that it was formed over millions of years by the deposition of silt and organic debris on the bottoms of seas or lakes. Heat and pressure eventually transformed the materials into oil shale.

Tar sands are a different animal altogether. These deposits are a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen, which is a heavy black vicous oil. The oily substance is in the sand and cannot be pumped out in the traditional sense, so it must be mined. The bitumen that is recovered from a complicated process of heating the raw materials is still not usable in the initial state. It also must be processed further to be used as a fuel.

If and when industry starts to extract oil shale and tar sands, probably the biggest impact on Carbon County will be at deposit of tar sands in the Sunnyside area, while oil shale will probably not be mined here for some time because bigger and better deposits of that resource are found in areas such as near Vernal. The Sunnyside site is estimated to have 4,400 billion tons of tar sands.

Of course not all of the resources are found on BLM land; some of it is on private and state land and those issues must also be addressed as needed in time.

Presently the BLM is in the scoping process, or that of gathering information. The scoping process will last until Jan. 31, 2006. Comments can be submitted by email by going to the project website at That site will also provide specific information about the areas that are under consideration for the PEIS.

Once the scoping process is done the BLM hopes to move on with the process with a review of the preliminary PEIS this next fall, a comment period on the final PEIS in the spring of 2007 and a record of decision soon after that.

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