This past weekend the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran opposing op-eds on the prospects of oil shale development in Colorado, and specifically on the Obama administration’s pending finalization of an oil shale leasing plan.
The Obama plan is a solid improvement over an earlier plan put forth by the Bush administration. It would help ensure that oil shale development–should it ever prove viable–happens more sensibly. With finalization, future decisions about developing oil shale will have to recognize resources like our scarce water and the public lands of the Piceance Basin are too valuable and important to just hand over to industry without knowledge of what exactly we would be getting into. Industry will have to be able to show what the impacts to those resources are likely to be before they are given permissions and permits to do so.
The Sentinel columns are behind a paywall but are notable not only for the substance but for the authors. On one hand Colorado Department of Natural Resource Director Mike King–himself a western Colorado native. On the other Brad McCloud the director of the suspiciously-named ‘Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale’ also known as EIS Solutions, an industry-funded astrourfing PR shop.
Of course significant questions still remain about potential impacts that might result from a commercial oil shale industry in Western Colorado. And King’s basic point is there is no reason to rush ahead, given both technologies and impacts remain unknown.
This is because after a century of effort and billions in taxpayer subsidies to help “unlock” the secret of the ‘rock that burns’ and turn it into a commercial fuel source: zilch.
Oh sure, there is talk as there has always been, and then another glitch, another setback, another delay. But with the Obama administration poised to finalize new leasing parameters and regulations for oil shale, the rhetoric has of late heated up. This is where the EIS Solutions op-ed comes in. Mr. McCloud argues that the U.S. taxpayer is not making enough of the public’s resources available to industry, and not enough is the same as nothing in industry’s overblown rhetoric.
Despite its history of disappointment and despair, the yet imaginary oil shale industry has an eager–if not unpredictable–chorus of boosters, including a handful of elected officials like Garfield Country commissioners John Martin and Tom Jankovsky. Having had to retract its illegal resolution from the secret meeting with oil shale lobbyists in Utah, the GarCo commission nonetheless recently decided to throw more taxpayer money after bad and file a protest on the Obama administration’s pending oil shale plan.
Reading Mr. McCloud’s op-ed, perusing industry and other reactionary blogs, or seeing the Chicken Little quotes from the likes of Commissioner Jankovsky, one might think that President Obama has actively thwarted, stopped, and shut down oil shale development, ‘closing off’ millions of acres and shutting down production of untold gushers of ‘crude’.
In reality, the Obama administration just approved new oil shale Research, Development and Demonstration leases, and is set to make over half a million acres of additional public lands available for further RD&D leasing.
To many observers, the whine of industry and their choir is the song of the self-entitled, for more: another hand out, more public land, more public dollars. The pending plan would dial back the Cheney Task Force inspired ‘open it all up now’ approach and require that companies first prove up their technologies and show they can properly mitigate impacts on a more limited basis before moving toward commercial leasing. This more measured approach has won the support of Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet in addition to the State of Colorado.
Among other reasons, and why notable local governments support the Obama plan including Rifle and Grand Junction, is the memory of the last time federal subsidies for research were handed out and and public lands thrown open to the sugar plum dreams of oil shale. That ended badly for Colorado in May 1982 .
So far industry, on the hundreds of thousands of acres it already controls or has under lease has failed to demonstrate what commercial oil shale technology might look like, and what it might impact.
But to the oil shale chorus who seem to accept at face value whatever sweet things industry whispers in their ear: all the industry needs to succeed is more taxpayer beneficence and public resources. And so we get to Texas congressman Ralph Hall who is proposing $50 million in additional taxpayer subsidies for oil shale.
Rep. Hall, the Garfield County Commissioners and all the industry choir sing of the great manna about to be cooked from the earth if only more public treasure is handed over to industry. This is the absolute wrong approach according to many, as summed up in this radio clip with former Grand Junction mayor Jim Spehar here. Spehar, like many others, prefers the Obama administration’s approach.
And so the boosters evoke grand visions of great and wondrous things, to distract as they can from real and persistent questions and lingering doubts about our precious water supplies, impacts to wildlife, our economic future.
And even as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation supposedly considers siphoning water from Kansas to Colorado to replenish the dwindling river with that namesake, a small water company in Rio Blanco County (doc) has filed for a massive water development on its rights–enough for a large city–in part to quench the industrial needs of a future oil shale industry.
“But do not fear,” the choir hums, “Gold will drip like oil from the skies, if only industry can have its way.”
The potential for both quantity and quality impacts to our vital water resources and to the public lands has many in Colorado concerned–another reason the State is siding with the measured approach of the Obama administration.
And while the industry and its choir try hard to divert attention from these recurrent concerns, serious doubts persist.
Taxpayer groups are skeptical of another boondoggle, to see more public dollars go to boosting up oil shale. Sportsmen, elected officials, state and local governments, are among those concerned about the impact to resources.
But the oil shale choir remains, chanting to hand over more public wealth to a mythical oil shale industry lured with promises of future goodies to come.