Hokum on the Range

Oil shale boosters' claims still don't hold water

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Why should we develop oil shale? Or, more precisely, what are the best arguments for scraping tens of thousands of acres of public land and using billions of gallons of scarce water and uncounted gigawatts of electricity to bake oil from rocks? 

Jeremy Boak, of the Colorado School of Mines, has two answers. Both are wrong. 

Some background on Mr. Boak. He’s director of Mines’ Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research, cutely known as "COSTAR." As the school proudly announced when COSTAR was born, the center "is funded by three major oil companies, Total Exploration and Production, Shell Exploration and Production, and ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company." So you see who he has to please.

First, Mr. Boak argues that oil shale development isn’t a problem because, contrary to some enviros’ claims, development would not occur "’in the midst of some of the wildest and most scenic land in America, much of it in protected parks and wilderness areas,’ but rather in range land administered by the BLM." 

Mr. Boak’s argument appears to be that "the range," that iconic American landscape immortalized in song and story, is the right place to bulldoze flat. 

Well, pardon me. Some of us think western Colorado, southern Wyoming and northeast Utah are pretty scenic… Like the Roan Plateau, parts of which have been proposed for wilderness protection, and which the Bush administration has opened to oil shale development (as well as natural gas drilling)…  And like the Adobe Town area in Wyoming, pictured above, also ready for sale for oil shale.

And more than scenery is at stake for these wild landscapes.

Oil shale will have far more surface impacts even than oil and gas development, which is already hurting elk, antelope, and sage grouse populations in the Rockies. Oil and gas development requires roads and drill pads, but not occupation of every surface acre where the pool of petroleum is found. Current oil shale technologies, on the other hand, will require essentially strip mining, or the development of industrial shale cookers on top of just about every acre where the shale is found.

So you can kiss the range goodbye—its scenery, its wildlife, its wildness—if oil shale development moves in.

Second, Mr. Boak says that the greens are just whining when they complain about the massive amounts of water that will be necessary to turn rock into oil. As he puts it, if folks "are concerned about oil shale using too much water, what do they make of biofuels, for which estimates by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory exceed oil shale estimates by a factor of ten or more?"

This is an apples-to-carburators comparison. It ignores the fact that where water is matters. Water in the arid West is in short supply. Thirsty oil shale will require millions of gallons a day—at someone else’s expense: ranchers, farmers, wildlife, towns and cities (including the greater Denver metro area). That’s why the Denver Water Board—not exactly a bunch of flaming tree-huggers—is extremely worried what oil shale development will mean for the Colorado River, and for the drinking water the Front Range needs. The last big unappropriated river in Colorado—the Yampa—may soon be tapped and dammed for oil shale development. But no one is talking about using millions of gallons of water in western Colorado to turn the federal public lands into cornfields for ethanol. The alternative is that the Yampa runs free, and wildlife, ranchers and newcomers still have some water to drink.

Admittedly, biofuels have their problems, including water use. But that doesn’t make the giant sucking sound that is oil shale development slurping down the West’s scarce water any more attractive. 

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.