Dispute about oil shale plan brought to City Council

Although Moffat County doesn't have the natural resource stores seen in counties to the south, as a regional player it stands to benefit or falter along with development in those communities.

Positives and negatives aren't always simply identified, however, said Sasha Nelson, Colorado Environmental Coalition northwest organizer, at Tuesday's Craig City Council meeting.

That's why Nelson appeared before the Council on Tuesday. The Environmental Coalition is circulating a letter around the region asking the Bureau of Land Management to extend its public comment period for a document that stands to affect the future of this area for years to come.

A plan for oil shale

The BLM released its Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for developing oil shale and tar sand lands across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in December 2007.

Oil shale is a fine-grained rock that can be heated to form a petroleum-like product useful for fuel. Currently, refining oil shale is not economically or logistically viable as the investment required to produce fuel is more than the finished product is worth in recoverable energy.

The Impact Statement was mandated by the U.S. Congress in the Energy Act of 2005 and is specifically for commercial oil shale leasing. Work began subsequently in December 2005.

The Impact Statement plans how the BLM will proceed with commercial leasing for oil shale in the future. It will amend every Resource Management Plan created by local BLM field offices where there is oil shale.

Currently, there are no commercial oil shale leases, but there are six research and development leases, five of which are in Rio Blanco County, said Heather Feeney, BLM spokeswoman out of the Washington, D.C., office.

The plan includes three alternatives for the amount of acreage that would be opened to commercial projects, ranging from no new land to 1.9 million acres.

The BLM preferred alternative would open the largest amount of acreage, which is about one-fifth of the total land in the Green River Formation around the Piceance Basin and about 57 percent of the total high-potential oil shale land.

"Any leases issued would come with terms, conditions and stipulations that assure protection of the environment and other resources present on the lands," Feeney said, "but making more lands potentially available provides latitude to work completely around, or avoid, particular sites if needed or to design and implement appropriate mitigation measures where needed."

The document does not allow commercial leasing on its own. Rules and regulations have not been completed, Feeney said, and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., attached a rider to the 2008 Omnibus Spending Bill forbidding BLM from releasing final rules and regulations in 2008.

Until the rules are published, there will be no commercial leasing, including for lands associated with current research and development leases, Feeney said.

The people's say

The Impact Statement's public comment period was slated for 90 days from its release, set to end March 20.

The Environmental Coalition would like the BLM to extend the comment period another 45 days. That the document was released four days before Christmas, weighs in at 14,000 pages and could permanently change the landscape of energy development across three states, it wouldn't be a bad idea to wait another month and a half for residents to wrap their heads around it, Nelson said.

"I'm not asking if you're pro or con for oil development," Nelson told the council. "We just want the public to have enough time to comment.

"It's important that individuals who have day-time jobs, kids to go home to and all sorts of other daily concerns have the opportunity to share their opinion," she added after the meeting.

Craig City Manager Jim Ferree planned to talk with government officials in those counties - Rio Blanco and Garfield - with the most oil shale and compile a report to present the Council at its next meeting March 11.

Ken Parsons, Rio Blanco county commissioner, does not support the extension, he said, but not because he thinks the Impact Statement is well prepared.

"Honest to goodness, the commissioners don't think it was a very good plan anyway, and I'm not sure 45 days is going to make any difference for substantial comments to it," Parsons said. "We think we ought to get this and move on and get to the next step and see what happens."

The Impact Statement doesn't seem to include any of the comments from regional agencies, Parsons added. At the next phase, he hopes those groups will have more impact.

He echoed concerns voiced by Nelson, among them the plan's disregard for water use.

It takes a relatively large amount of water to produce useable oil from oil shale, and Northwest Colorado already has issues with water supply shortages.

In addition, the Impact Statement doesn't provide for any new research and development sites. There needs to be a lot more research before oil shale will ever be a viable energy source, Parsons said.

The heart of it

The Colorado Environmental Coalition agrees that oil shale could one day be a valuable resource for the United States, Nelson said, but development should happen responsibly.

Her organization fears that if an Impact Statement passes without sufficient comment from the people affected, development could get out of control, she added.

"We can't rely on industry to govern itself," Nelson said. "Our whole point is we need to know what we want to build here."

Others don't feel the energy industry is in a position to start developing oil shale anytime soon, with or without a final Impact Statement.

"Realistically, we are not anywhere near being able to do that," Feeney said.

By her estimation, the technology to refine oil shale into a usable and economically viable product is about 15 to 20 years away.

Peggy Rector, Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale board chair, said any delays to finalizing the BLM Impact Statement would stall the process to develop oil shale and make the U.S. independent from foreign oil.

Rector is a former Rangely mayor and former Rio Blanco County commissioner when oil shale was first looked at in the late 1970s. Her organization is partially made up of economic development groups, businesses and pro-American energy groups.

"I think people have forgotten we who live out here want to - and can - look after our land out here and want to make sure it's taken care of," Rector said. "I think people also overlook that our economy is strong and it's energy-based."

The BLM has not received any requests to extend its public comment period and cannot comment on that until a request is filed, Feeney said.

Going forward, the Colorado Environmental Coalition plans two free town hall meetings in the region.

The first is planned for 7 p.m. March 6 at the Colorado Northwest Community College Rangely campus Weiss Center.

The second is planned for 7 p.m. March 7 at Kilowatt Korner in Meeker.

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com

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