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Jan 082009

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

In its waning days, the outgoing Bush administration is promoting oil-shale development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming by passing regulations that would open public lands to oil-shale exploration, leasing and development. In November, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management put these regulations into effect to develop an oil shale program that the bureau says could add 800 billion barrels of oil from land in the Western United States.

In response, earlier this week, 11 environmental groups notified the administration and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of their intent to file federal lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act. The BLM has 60 days to respond. The environmental groups, which include the Sierra Club, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, want the administration to consider the effects that commercial oil-shale development will have on endangered species.

Oil-shale development destroys habitats, causes air pollution and depletes and pollutes scarce water resources in the West, says Melissa Thrailkill, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. In addition, the process of turning oil-shale into a usable fuel source demands massive amounts of electricity.

As many as 10 new power plants will be needed in these three states to generate this electricity, which then increases greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Polar bears, ribbon seals, Pacific walrus, American pika and ocean corals are all at risk of extinction due to global warming.

And in order to produce energy from oil-shale, large amounts of water are required from the Colorado River, a water supply upon which many residents and farmers depend. The river is also home to four endangered fish species.

In a mid-November statement, Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management Stephen Allred, defended the program, saying, “The United States needs all types of energy resources, both conventional and renewable, in order to meet our future needs. Production from domestic resources makes us more secure and less vulnerable to future energy crises, and increases our security and economic well-being. The tremendous oil shale resources that we have in the U.S., containing several times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, can be a vital component of that secure future.”

Tracy Boyd, communications and sustainability manager with Shell Exploration and Production, says these regulations were supposed to come out a while ago. “They are not so much eleventh hour maneuvers but just wrapping up business as the administration comes to a close,” he says. It’s possible, he says, that the environmental entities who are challenging the regulations may not realize the realistic timeline for development. “These regulations do not authorize the initiation of any actual commercial leasing. It may be as long as 10 years away. There are many more reviews that need to be conducted. [Oil shale] leasing is way down the road,” he says.

Thrailkill, though, says the new oil-shale regulations will have huge impact on global warming that “is simply unacceptable,” adding that, “dirty energy development will have enormous and damaging effects on the waters, wildlife and lands of the West.”

The new Bush administration laws will be procedurally hard to rescind. “This is a big hassle for the incoming Obama Administration,” she says. “Congress could step in,” she says, but with much of the population clamoring for oil, especially “homegrown and not foreign oil, there’s a lot of pressure to develop this land.”

“There needs to be incentives for companies to develop clean energy and at the same time reduce demand,” she says.

Unfortunately, Thrailkill says, the Bush Administration and the Bureau of Land Management did not consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with an environmentally smart program. “Commercial oil-shale development could help lead us to catastrophic climate change, [rendering] thousands of plants and animals around the world extinct. “

“The Obama team is going to have to make [clean energy] one of its top priorities,” she says.

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