BLM Issues Draft Programmatic EIS for Oil Shale and Tar Sands; Preferred Alternative Identifies Research and Development as Appropriate First Step on Public Lands


Here’s the release from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (Megan Crandall):

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has published the Notice of Availability (NOA) of the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) and Possible Land Use Amendments for Allocation of Oil Shale and Tar Sands Resources on Lands Administered by the BLM in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The publication opens a 90-day public review and comment period.

The Draft PEIS analyzes several alternatives for land allocation and resource management. Under the BLM’s Preferred Alternative identified in the Draft PEIS, the BLM would continue to support the research and development of hydrocarbon deposits in an environmentally responsible way that protects scarce water supplies in the arid West.

If the BLM decides to adopt the Preferred Alternative, 461,965 acres would be available for research and development of oil shale, a kerogen-rich rock (35,308 acres in Colorado; 252,181 acres in Utah; and 174,476 acres in Wyoming). In addition, 91,045 acres in eastern Utah would be available for activities related to tar sands, a type of hydrocarbon-wet sedimentary deposit.

“The preferred alternative continues our commitment to encouraging research, development, and demonstration projects so that companies can develop technologies that can lead to economic and commercial viability,” said BLM Director Bob Abbey. “Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use, and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil shale development, we are proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity. If oil shale is to be viable on a commercial scale, we must take a common-sense approach that encourages research and development first.”

To date, technological and economic conditions have not combined to support a sustained commercial oil shale industry in the United States, and there is currently no commercial development of oil shale in the areas under review in the draft PEIS. Lands that would be open to oil shale development under the Preferred Alternative would be available for Research, Development, and Demonstration (RD&D) leases. The BLM could issue a commercial lease after a lessee satisfies the conditions of its RD&D lease and meets all federal regulations for conversion to a commercial lease.

Additionally, following the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office – which determined that several fundamental questions about oil shale technologies remain unanswered, including critical questions about water demands – the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is undertaking an analysis of baseline water resources conditions to improve the understanding of groundwater and surface water systems that could be affected by commercial-scale oil shale development.

Oil shale is a term used to describe a wide range of fine-grained, sedimentary rocks that contain solid bituminous materials called kerogen. It should not be confused with “shale oil,” which is not addressed by the draft PEIS. Kerogen, which is organic matter derived mainly from aquatic organisms, releases petroleum-like liquids when subjected to extremely high temperatures – more than 750 degrees. Developers have been trying to produce oil from this rock in an economically-viable way for more than a century. The majority of U.S. oil shale (and the world’s largest oil shale deposit) is found in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

Tar sands are sedimentary rocks containing a heavy hydrocarbon compound called bitumen. They can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. However, unlike the oil sands deposits in Canada, oil is not currently produced from tar sands on a significant commercial level in the United States. Additionally, the U.S. tar sands are hydrocarbon wet, whereas the Canadian oil sands are water wet. This difference means that U.S. tar sands will require different processing techniques.

Any new land allocation decisions made on the basis of the Final PEIS would replace the land allocation decisions made in 2008 that proposed making up to 2 million acres of public lands available for commercial oil shale leasing in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming and 431,000 acres available for tar sands leasing in Utah. Some Western communities argued that the 2008 PEIS and Record of Decision would have prematurely allowed commercial leasing without technologies having been proven viable and without a clear understanding of impacts on scarce Western water supplies. In response to those concerns and in settlement of litigation, the agency agreed to reconsider the 2008 land allocation decisions.

A 90-day public review and comment period began on February 3, 2012 and is scheduled to end on May 4, 2012.

Public meetings on the Draft PEIS will also be held in Rifle, CO; Rock Springs, WY; Salt Lake City; and Vernal, UT. The public will be notified of the dates and times of these meetings at least 15 days in advance via local media and the project website.

Written comments on the Draft PEIS may be submitted by any of the following methods:

Website – Using the online comment form available on the project Website: (This is the preferred method of commenting.)

Mail – Addressed to:

Oil Shale and Tar Sands Resources Draft Programmatic EIS
Argonne National Laboratory
9700 South Cass Avenue—EVS/240
Argonne, IL 60439.

Before including your address, telephone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment–including your personal identifying information–may be made publicly available at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.

To read the BLM’s Federal Register Notice of Availability click here.

To read the Draft PEIS click here.

More coverage from Catharine Tsai writing for The Associated Press via The Casper Tribune. From the article:

A new draft environmental impact statement released Friday says the preferred plan now is to make 35,308 acres in Colorado, 252,181 acres in Utah, and 174,476 acres in Wyoming available for research. Also, 91,045 acres in eastern Utah would be available for activities related to tar sands. The public has until May 4 to comment on the proposal. The Bureau of Land Management estimates the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming has about 1.2 to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil resources, but not all may be recoverable…

Following recommendations from the GAO, the U.S. Geological Survey is analyzing baseline water conditions so it can better understand how commercial-scale oil shale development could affect groundwater and surface water systems.

More coverage from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

Energy industry leaders said they are anxious to review details of the “draft programmatic environmental impact statement.”

“Any plan that delays development is not conducive to producing the energy that American consumers demand,” American Petroleum Institute spokesman Reid Porter said. “Testing is extremely important. But also there has to be certainty, an operating environment that’s conducive to investment.”

Rio Blanco County Commissioner Ken Parsons said he would prefer to see a plan that moves toward commercial development. “Some of it has to do with jobs, and there’s the energy independence question.”[…]

…Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Mike King backed the deliberative approach. “We need to be thorough and have a full understanding of potential impacts to the environment and our communities before we take steps toward large-scale leasing or development of oil shale.”

A coalition of farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and city officials and others has supported a rollback of the Bush administration’s 2008 push for opening public lands to tap oil shale. “We’re really concerned about the impacts on water. We cannot gamble away our water on oil shale speculation,” said Bill Midcap, director of renewable energy development for the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union. “We cannot risk our farm economy.”

More coverage from the Summit County Citizens Voice. From the article:

The BLM released a draft environmental impact statement outlining how the agency will review and potentially revise land use plans in various jurisdictions in the region.
The BLM announcement garnered a favorable reaction from many quarters.

“Having worked for the BLM and Department of the Interior for many years, I know well the challenge of land management,” said Vern Lovejoy, a former outdoor recreation planner with the BLM in Wyoming. “Oil shale can be developed in many places, but we need to make sure we understand the potential impacts on a site-by-site basis before we enter into leases that will forever change the environment. There has to be more of an analysis than ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

“Hunting and fishing are huge economic drivers in the West – with an economic impact of $1.5 billion in Colorado alone,” said John Ellenberger is the retired big game manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “We cannot afford to risk those jobs and the critical big game habitat deer and elk need to survive. But moving forward with oil shale development prematurely puts at risk this world-class wildlife and the jobs and hunting heritage that healthy natural resources provide to our state.”

“While I have long felt there is potential for oil shale development, it is critical that a number of unanswered questions be resolved before commercial-scale leasing takes place,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, said in a prepared statement. “Fully understanding the demands of oil shale development on Colorado’s water and local communities is essential to ensuring responsible development.”

More coverage from Troy Hooper writing for the Colorado Independent. From the article:

“While I have long felt there is potential for oil shale development, it is critical that a number of unanswered questions be resolved before commercial-scale leasing takes place,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, said in a prepared statement. “Fully understanding the demands of oil shale development on Colorado’s water and local communities is essential to ensuring responsible development.”

Last year, the BLM announced it would reconsider the Bush-era land leasing plan as part of a settlement of a lawsuit by environmental groups in 2009 that challenged the 2008 action.

“For the sportsmen, farmers, ranchers and communities on the Western Slope that depend on clean air and clean water, making sure development is done right the first time is vital to their way of life,” said Udall, noting that the BLM will be accepting public comment on its plan for the next 90 days.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, issued a statement reminding residents of “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, when Exxon’s massive Colony oil shale project went bust on the state’s Western Slope. “In Colorado, we have seen what can happen when we rush into oil shale development,” Bennet said. “We need to be certain we can do this in an environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable way– particularly with regard to water, which is critical to farmers, ranchers and the economies of western communities. Secretary Salazar’s announcement marks a balanced and prudent next step in our efforts to ensure that any commercial oil shale development is done in a thoughtful manner. An emphasis on continued research is entirely appropriate in advance of crafting any commercial development guidelines that continue to protect our natural resources and provide a fair return to American taxpayers in the process.”

More oil shale coverage here and here.

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