OIL SHALE AND TAR SANDS
Oil shale and tar sands development is one of the filthiest ways to produce energy, and extracting oil from our public lands in this way would deal a disastrous blow to any hope of reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to below 350 parts per million — the level we need to reach soon to stabilize Earth’s climate. Besides helping push us toward global warming catastrophe, oil shale and tar sands development would destroy species habitat, waste enormous volumes of water, pollute air and water, and degrade and defile vast swaths of land. And since it’s so wasteful, it’s not even commercially viable yet.
But oil companies want access to millions of acres of public lands for oil shale mining and development in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. These lands, currently open to the public for top-quality outdoor recreation, include prime trout-fishing areas, America’s healthiest elk herds, rare plants found nowhere else in the world, and many endangered and threatened species. These are also areas that support rural lifestyles passed down for generations — not places to locate strip mines, oil refineries, power plants, and all the highways, pipelines, power lines, and dumpsites to support them.
Unconventional for a Reason
Oil shale is a form of sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, which is released as a petroleum-like liquid when the rock is heated. Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, which is a heavy hydrocarbon. Like the kerogen in oil shale, tar sands’ bitumen can be upgraded to synthetic crude oil. Because developing fossil fuels from these resources is different and more intensive that traditional energy production, such as coal mining or oil and gas drilling, oil shale and tar sands are referred to as unconventional fuel sources.
There are two shale-oil extraction methods — neither of which is proven to be viable. One method is similar to coal extraction and involves underground, open-pit, or strip mining. Unlike coal production, however, this method of oil shale production requires the added steps of pulverizing the shale and then cooking it in giant kilns to drive off the oil. A second method involves drilling tightly spaced wells across thousands of acres of land and injecting heat into the ground for several years in order to heat the kerogen so it can be released for further upgrading and refining. This method is called the “in situ method.” Despite the maze of pipes and pumps used with this method, it wouldn’t produce significant oil volumes until 2037 (at the earliest).
Developing tar sands is very similar to developing oil shale. The bitumen from tar sands can be extracted either through traditional mining techniques or by using a form of in situ as described above. As with oil shale, once released, the bitumen from tar sands must be upgraded and refined further before it’s usable as a fuel source.
Worse for Climate Change Than Coal
Producing oil from shale or tar sands is dirtier than the dirtiest coal. This is particularly true for oil shale development, since an incredible amount of energy is required to squeeze a barrel of oil out of stone. In fact, the production of every barrel of shale oil sends 50 percent more CO2 into the atmosphere than the production of one barrel of crude oil. This is unacceptable at a time when we must be dramatically reducing ourCO2 emissions — not redoubling them. Fuel efficiency, public transit, better urban planning, and a new generation of vehicles are better investments to reduce foreign imports over the next 30 years.
A Waste of Water We Don’t Have in the First Place
The Colorado River supplies water to about 30 million people and irrigates about 3.5 million acres of farmland. All 15 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s annual flow have already been allocated for use. During many years, the river is so overtaxed it doesn’t have a drop left by the time it reaches the sea. Meanwhile, reservoir levels are falling to record-low levels.
But all significant shale oil and tar sands resources sit in the Colorado River basin. Because development of these resources would require vast quantities of water, it’s likely — if not certain — that a commercial leasing program would put incredible stress on an already overstressed and irreplaceable resource. According to U.S. Department of Energy figures, replacing current OPEC oil imports with shale oil would cost us as much as 1.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River basin water every year — enough to drain Lake Mead dry in fewer than 10 years. Meanwhile, the West is facing water shortages due to lengthy droughts brought on by climate change, as well as continued and expected growth in the region. Climate change predictions call for less rain and more evaporation in the future.
Despite opposition from two governors, numerous congressmen, and environmentalists everywhere, in November 2008 the Bush administration published final regulations for commercial oil leasing and development: so-called “rules of the road” for a program that isn’t even yet financially practicable. The same month, the Bush administration finalized and approved amendments to 10 land-use management plans governing the public lands in the region. These amendments make more than 2 million acres available for potential commercial development of oil shale and tar sands.
New projects allowed under the Bureau’s plan would not only result in tremendous energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions, they would also harm countless species and their public-lands habitat. At the outset of 2009, the Center joined a coalition of groups in filing two suits showing that the Bush-era Bureau broke the law — first, by amending the management plans in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming without giving the public a chance to appeal the decision; and second, by drafting regulations for a commercial oil-shale program without sufficiently addressing environmental impacts. In February, the Obama Department of the Interior announced it would offer a second round of research, development, and demonstration leases for oil shale on public lands in Colorado and Utah and withdraw the Bush administration’s proposal for expanded leases. Since taking up his post, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has stated and reiterated that development of oil shale and tar sands will remain an option in energy planning.
The Center seeks to prevent any oil shale or tar sands development on public lands, including the unacceptable extraction and combustion of oil, the consumption of water and energy attending that extraction, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.