On 4 September the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) that modifies the land-use plans of 1.9 million acres in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to prioritize commercial oil shale development in this area. The PEIS moves BLM lands a step closer to being available for commercial leasing. The PEIS affects the Green River Formation, a semi-arid region that contains the largest known deposits of oil shale in the world.

Oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains undecayed algae called kerogen. Kerogen must be extracted from oil shale, refined, and converted into synthetic crude oil before it can be sold to consumers. The BLM has drawn criticism from environmental groups and Colorado officials, including Governor Bill Ritter (D) and Senator Ken Salazar (D), for moving forward with the PEIS when suitable technologies for converting oil shale into crude oil are still in the developmental phase.

BLM Director Jim Caswell said in a statement, "The goal of the BLM's oil-shale program is to promote economically viable and environmentally sound production of oil shale on Western lands.” Conversely, Senator Salazar said in a statement, "The BLM itself has said that we are still years away from even knowing whether oil-shale development will be possible on a commercial scale. They also report that they have no idea how much power would be required or what effect commercial oil-shale development would have on Western water supplies."

Past governmental attempts to develop the oil shale industry in this region resulted in 2,200 people losing their jobs when Exxon closed the doors on its project in 1982, an event referred to as Black Sunday.

Regardless of how the oil will be extracted, the commercial exploitation of this resource is energy intensive and likely to raise significant environmental concerns, according to many familiar with the process.

BLM must wait 60 days before it can issue a Record of Decision on the PEIS. The next step would be to craft guidelines for issuing leases, but Congress has placed a moratorium on agencies issuing such regulations during the current fiscal year. Comments on the PEIS may be submitted at http://www.regulations.gov until 22 September 2008.

For additional coverage of this topic, consider reading the June Washington Watch column in BioScience, “Shale Oil: Alternative Energy or Environmental Degradation.” This article is available for free at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2008_06.html


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