Groups are urging the Bush administration to reverse an amendment to federal land management plans that would offer up vast public tracts for oil shale development.
Groups urge 'reckless' oil plan reversal
Carbondale, Colorado // Conservationists, residents and leading politicians from the American west are pressing the Bush administration to reverse a controversial, eleventh-hour amendment to federal land management plans that would offer up vast public tracts for oil shale development. Bill Ritter, the Democrat governor of Colorado, called the plan "hasty" and "reckless". Suzanne O'Neill, the executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, has called it an "early holiday present for Big Oil". Announced on Nov 31, the new regulation would allow commercial oil firms to bid for leases to explore up to 809,371 hectares spread across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Geologists believe there are about 800 billion barrels of petroleum locked inside shale deposits across the three western states, or enough to feed US demand at current levels for more than a century. With recent memories of the US$4 (Dh14.7) a gallon (3.8 litres) of petrol lingering, and a growing federal determination to reduce the nation's dependency on foreign oil imports, oil shale appears to provide a tempting alternative. Saudi Arabian reserves, for example, are believed to be about 267 billion barrels. However, environmentalists said extracting petroleum in usable form from oil shale would be devastating to the environment. It involves strip mining the earth to extract the rocks, and then cooking them at high temperature, creating a carbon footprint much higher than regular drilling. Critics also charge the process uses so much energy that there could be little, if any, return on the investment. "The truth is that oil shale is a marginal resource at best," said Peter Hart, a conservation analyst at the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale. "This is scraping at the bottom of the barrel." Many wonder why the Bush administration is pushing ahead on leasing oil shale fields when no energy firm has developed a way to extract it in mass quantities. Even the Shell Oil Company, which runs the largest programme to study oil shale extraction, said the technology to make it commercially viable is still more than a decade away. "Oil shale is fool's gold," said Chase Huntley, of the Wilderness Society. "For centuries everyone from alchemists to petroleum engineers have tried to extract fuel from it and no one has found a way to make it work." Western politicians, including the Wyoming governor and two Colorado legislators, have also slammed George W Bush's announcement that he will reduce royalty rates for oil shale extraction to five per cent - compared to rates of 12.5 per cent to 18.8 per cent for conventional oil and gas production on public lands. The low rate is intended as an incentive for oil firms to continue exploring oil shale extracting. But Ken Salazar, a Colorado senator, called it a "pittance" that would rob his state of billions in earnings if the technology ever did pan out. He also questioned the impact commercial development would have on water, Colorado's scarcest resource. Conservationists describe Mr Bush's regulation on oil shale as a poor investment, especially given the current economic downturn. "At a time of very limited resources, it is foolhardy to be throwing money after the dream of oil shale," Mr Huntley said. "We should be giving those breaks to clean energy companies who have technology they are ready to roll out tomorrow." Instead, in the waning weeks of his presidency, Mr Bush has pushed through a rash of environmental regulations, many of which appear to lend a hand to big industry ahead of looming regulations on climate change. One regulation would limit Congress from halting logging and mining on public lands. Another gave federal agencies the right to decide for themselves whether major infrastructural projects are hazardous to wildlife and the environment. Until now, under the Endangered Species Act, they had to get clearance from a licensed wildlife expert. Mr Bush has also lowered air quality standards, meaning coal fired plants and oil refineries can perch themselves closer to national parks. He decreed that factory farms should decide for themselves whether or not they need permits to dump waste into streams and rivers. And he ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a regulation requiring lorries to install an emissions monitor. The timing of the new regulations - all of which take effect just days before Barack Obama, the president-elect, is sworn into office - will make them difficult and time-consuming for the new administration to undo. However, spokesmen for Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, have said the Democrats were prepared to fast track the process to reverse the regulations in consultation with Mr Obama. The president-elect ran on a campaign to invest billions of dollars in renewable energy projects, including solar, wind and geothermal. "One of the clear messages that came through in the election was, 'enough'," said David Abelson, a policy adviser for western resource advocates. "What the Bush administration is doing now is thumbing their nose at public and saying, 'We haven't given oil companies enough'." email@example.com