Oil Shale

Years of advocacy produce a qualified victory for conservation
American Oil Shale

American Oil Shale’s research and development test site, south of Rangely. Photo by Peter Hart.

Colorado’s oil shale deposits are concentrated in the hill country between Parachute and Meeker. While this lies somewhat outside of WW’s service area, the consequences of commercial-scale oil shale development would be felt throughout the region. Given that the technology isn’t anywhere near proven and the impacts are unknown (but potentially dire), we and our regional partners have maintained that the government shouldn’t proceed with commercial leasing on federal lands until these and many other issues are figured out.

In March 2013, after seven years of hard pushing by conservationists, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a final decision on oil shale that is far better for the environment than what had been proposed in 2005. The total acreage available for development has been cut by two-thirds and the Colorado acreage has been cut by 93 percent, to 26,000 acres. More than 1.3 million acres have been saved from development, including all wilderness-quality lands.

WW was one of 16 groups that sued the Interior Department in 2009 for allowing development on up 2 million acres of public lands and setting bargain-basement royalty rates. This resulted in a settlement in 2011, with Interior agreeing to go back to the drawing board on its development plan. In the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process that followed, a team of conservationists coordinated by Western Resource Advocates kept up the pressure for more limited development; WW worked on the Colorado effort.

We’d rather see no public lands opened up to commercial oil shale development. The extraction process, akin to mountain-top removal in its impacts, would destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, consume huge quantities of water, cause significant air pollution, and promote boom and bust cycles for our local economies.

Obviously this is not a complete victory, but it is a substantially better deal for public lands we care about in Colorado. We’ll continue to watchdog oil shale development as it proceeds.