Wyoming conservation group protests BLM oil shale plan

2012-12-11T23:30:00Z 2012-12-12T00:23:07Z Wyoming conservation group protests BLM oil shale planBy ADAM VOGE Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
December 11, 2012 11:30 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. -- A Wyoming conservation group is one of three organizations opposing a federal Bureau of Land Management decision to open federal lands to oil shale research and development.

The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, a Laramie-based group, joined forces with the Western Watersheds Project and Californians for Western Wilderness to file a protest earlier this week. The document opposes a BLM environmental impact statement released in August which allows for oil shale research and development on more than 700,000 acres across Wyoming, Colorado and Utah -- 293,000 of which are in the Green River Basin, between Rock Springs and Evanston, and the Washakie Basin, southeast of Rock Springs.

The group's protest centers around what they say is the BLM's failure to protect sensitive wildlife and lands in Wyoming, including the sage grouse, a candidate for the federal endangered species list.

The agency's study identifies the most "geologically prospective" resource areas in Colorado and Utah, which are thought to be at least 25 feet thick and contain at least 25 gallons of oil shale per ton of rock. But the identified prospective areas in Wyoming are those where the deposits are 15 feet thick and contain 15 gallons of oil shale per ton of rock.

The agency wrote in its statement that Wyoming's "oil shale resource quality" is not as high as Utah's and Colorado's, hence the inclusion of areas with sparser oil shale concentrations in the study. But the organizations object to that logic.

"What it all boils down to here is that the BLM has outlined a very reasonable and prudent methodology for leasing oil shale in Colorado," said Erik Molvar, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance's executive director. "But Wyoming gets a weaker and less-protective treatment. It looks like Wyoming's sensitive lands and wildlife are getting thrown under the bus."

The agency's decision was designed to encourage research and development of oil shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock rich in kerogen, which can be heated to extract a crude oil-like substance.

The process needed to utilize oil shale -- not to be confused with "shale oil," which simply means oil contained in shale formations -- is expensive and has fallen in and out of favor with private industry over the past several decades.

By allowing companies to lease areas supposedly rich in the mineral, the agency hopes to encourage further expansion of the industry. The leases would be for research and development purposes, falling short of a typical commercial lease. But research and development could shine light on how to establish commercial leases, according to Vanessa Lacayo, a Colorado BLM spokeswoman.

"Right now the technology doesn’t seem to exist to move forward with commercial leasing," Lacayo said Tuesday. "Allowing research, development and demonstration projects to move forward is setting a path for that while looking at environmental concerns associated."

Lacayo said she didn't know why the oil shale density figures varied on either side of a state border. She referred such questions to a BLM spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., who could not be reached Tuesday.

Molvar said his group would withdraw its protest if the criteria are changed to be identical across all three states.

"It’s not like when you cross the border the oil shale becomes a lot easier to extract from the rock or the technology gets better," he said. "Economics and technological feasibility are just the same here as anywhere else."

This is the alliance's second BLM-related filing in two months. In November, the group filed a lawsuit alleging that the BLM wasn't following sage grouse protection orders in its permitting of the Lost Creek uranium project near Rawlins.

The state of Wyoming and the company behind the project, Ur-Energy, have each since filed briefs asking to be involved in the case. Ur-Energy expects preliminary hearings to begin before the end of the year.

Lacayo said the BLM takes all protests into consideration and could conceivably alter the impact statement.

"It's really dependent on the nature of the protest," she said.

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