As my friend Ed Quillen once said, “Oil shale has been the ‘Next big thing’ in Colorado for over a hundred years.”
The White River meanders through Utah on its way to joining the Green River, flowing slowly through land on which an energy company hopes to develop its oil shale holdings.
Opponents and supporters of the proposal by Enefit American Oil have drawn familiar lines in the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.
Opponents contend that the project threatens the local environment and that development could unbalance the global climate.
Supporters say the project would prop up local economies in two states still reeling from the fall in oil prices that slowed production and put a virtual halt to exploration.
Enefit is seeking a right of way across federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which listed the route as a preferred alternative in its environmental study of the request.
Oil shale development is a greater threat to the atmosphere than other fossil-fuel development, said John Weisheit of Living Rivers.
“It’s not a contribution to society,” Weisheit said. “It’s a detriment to society.”
More like a lifeline to struggling northwest Colorado and northeast Utah, said Lannie Massey, natural resource specialist for Rio Blanco County.
“This Enefit deal is a good deal for everybody involved,” Massey said. “It would lessen our dependence on foreign sources” of energy and pump new life into the moribund energy industry.
Enefit’s project has attracted an array of opposition, including the Grand Canyon Trust, Earthjustice, Western Resource Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, as well as Living Rivers.
The northwest Colorado town of Rangely stands to benefit from Enefit’s project because of the town’s proximity. Rangely is about 30 miles from the area via Rio Blanco County Road 23, which could connect to Dragon Road in Utah, and then into the project site.
The project is expected to require about 2,000 jobs, which would be “a huge boost for this area and for this region, eastern Utah and western Colorado,” said Tim Webber, executive director of the Western Rio Blanco County Metro Recreation and Park District.
Bonanza, Utah, and Rangely are the nearest towns and they sit 20 miles apart as the crow flies, 28 miles apart by road. The rough-and-tumble territory in between is pockmarked with drillpads and Gilsonite mines that cut deep, straight-edge swaths into the earth.
Enefit’s oil shale project sits on private land as well as state land set aside for development to benefit Utah schools and other institutions.
Enefit is planning to mine oil shale under 27,243 acres, most it privately held.
The project under consideration by the BLM is a utility corridor over federal land that Enefit would use to extend utilities to serve the project, which projects production of 50,000 barrels of oil per day for as many as 30 years.
Enefit is planning to build three pipelines, expand an existing road and run a 138-kilovolt power line to the project area 12 miles southeast of Bonanza.
“I fly over that area a lot,” said Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight. The corridor land is “relatively pristine” with good habitat for animals, Gordon said.
The area is “pretty industrialized and disturbed already,” said Enefit Chief Executive Officer Rikki Hrenko-Browning.
Enefit could develop its private holdings without crossing federal land, but that would require a constant stream of heavy trucks and other heavy equipment, resulting in reduced air quality, the BLM said in its draft environmental impact statement.
The BLM needs to better understand the oil that would be produced by Enefit, as well as take into account the potential effects on water quality and of spent shale, said Anne Mariah Tapp of the Grand Canyon Trust.
The possible effects of a spill of oil into the White River or Evacuation Creek — and how to clean it up — have gone unstudied, Tapp said.
“Water quality is as important as water quantity,” Tapp said.
The BLM also should have a better idea of what will happen with 23 million tons of spent shale produced every year, Tapp said.
Spent shale — as the rock left over after the process is referred to — contains poisons, such as arsenic, as well as minerals, such as lithium.
Enefit is planning a “zero-liquid discharge” process in which all water to be used will be captured, treated and reused, said Hrenko-Browning. [ed. emphasis mine]
Plans also call for Enefit to have ongoing reclamation in areas of surface mining, Hrenko-Browning said.
Once the BLM completes its process, Enefit will seek permits from the state, including the state mining permit.
Rangely and western Rio Blanco County are working hard to diversify the regional economy, said Massey.
There is more at stake than that, however, Massey said.
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contain the largest oil shale resources in the world.
“If we can get somebody to commit money and improve the retort process,” Massey said, “it would be a benefit to all of us in the oil shale region.”