In the latest chapter of a decades-long battle over oil-rich shale in Utah, this week over a dozen conservation groups submitted public comments urging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reject an Estonian oil giant's attempts to sidestep environmental review and start the first commercial oil shale project in the United States.
Utah residents have opposed oil shale mining since at least the 1960s, and now an Estonian oil shale giant called Enefit "seeks to strip-mine 9,000 acres for oil shale near the Green and White rivers, and ultimately expand its operations to process up to 1.2 billion barrels of kerogen oil," as the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a statement.
"The administration should abandon this project now."
Center for Biological Diversity
"The BLM is charged with safeguarding the American public interest and our national inheritance—our federal public lands," said Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust. "But instead the BLM is preparing to flip the 'on' switch for Enefit’s massive oil shale strip mine and jump-start development of one of the world's most polluting industries."
"The interests of an Estonian mining giant should not trump those of the American public," Tapp concluded.
Oil shale, also known as kerogen oil or organic marlstone, is a mixture of sedimentary rocks and kerogen—a solid mix of organic compounds that can be burned to produce hydrocarbons in solid and gas form.
It is an unconventional fuel that contains only one-tenth the energy of crude oil, or the "energy density of a baked potato," as the Denver Post put it. And the only method of extracting the oily mixture is to strip mine.
The Post goes on to describe the arduous process of mining and refining oil shale:
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Historically, oil shale has been mined, crushed and roasted in large kilns, or 'retorts.' The slag, swollen in volume and contaminated with arsenic, must then be disposed. The process is so costly, laborious and polluting that global output has never exceeded 25,000 barrels a day, compared to 84 million barrels of conventional oil production.
Estonia has one of the largest oil shale industries in the world, but the unconventional oil has never been commercially mined stateside. And in applying for the right-of-way to begin operations in Utah, Enefit has still failed to reveal a development plan for its project, meaning its potential impacts on the land cannot be assessed.
Conservationists predict those impacts will be dire: "Shale waste runoff will contaminate Evacuation Creek, the White River and the Green River, which are all important for the recovery of endangered fish, and for communities downstream," said John Weisheit, conservation director for Utah-based Living Rivers, in response to Enefit's proposal.
Indeed, in 2005 a RAND corporation analysis (pdf) looked at the potential impact of creating an oil shale industry in the Green River formation, as Enefit intends to do, and predicted catastrophic effects: billions of tons of shale rock tailings, over-consumption of freshwater resources, elevated salinity in the Colorado River Basin, and emissions of pollutants deemed toxic by the Clean Air Act. (And this analysis was done before the threat of a years-long "megadrought" loomed over the Western U.S.)
"Enefit's massive strip-mining and refining operations will unleash significant air and climate pollution in an area that's already suffering from some of the nation's most unhealthy wintertime smog," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the pro bono law firm Earthjustice.
"But Enefit has refused to provide federal agencies or the public with information about the project's air and climate pollution until after it gets BLM's OK to start building access for water, power and roads," Zukowski continued. "That's backward. Enefit can't be allowed to game the system by getting federal approval first, but only owning up to the project's damage later."
"The Interior Department is working against President Obama's climate goals here," added Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Subsidizing the development of one of the world's dirtiest fossil fuels is the opposite of climate leadership. Doing so in the Colorado River Basin is the opposite of prudent water policy. The administration should abandon this project now."