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Oil and Gas Development
Aspen Times, January 6, 2009

Conservation groups threaten suit over oil shale
By Judith Kohler, The Associated Press

DENVER — Environmental groups are threatening to sue the federal government to block plans for commercial oil shale development on nearly 2 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Twelve groups sent letters to Tuesday to the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management saying they will sue unless the potential impacts on endangered species are addressed.

They argue the final plan and rules approved late last year violated federal law because the agencies didn't formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They cut Fish and Wildlife Service out of it," said Melissa Thrailkill, an attorney with Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

Documents obtained by the groups under the Freedom of Information Act show that Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were concerned about "information gaps" in the BLM's environmental analysis. The biologists suggested barring leases in habitat for threatened or sensitive species, the documents show.

"In its rush to pave the way for oil shale development before leaving the office, the Bush administration broke the law once again by refusing to protect the West's endangered wildlife," Thrailkill said.

BLM spokesman Matt Spangler said the agency had no comment on the environmental groups' claims.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and other state officials have urged federal officials to delay a final plan and rules for commercial oil shale development, saying there are too many unanswered questions about the effects on water, wildlife, air and local economies.

They point out that companies are still experimenting with the technology and that industry and government officials acknowledge that commercial development is several years away.

In November, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal asked the BLM to remove the Adobe Town badlands in southwest Wyoming from land available for lease.

The Bush administration released the final plan for opening the land to shale development in November, a few weeks after a congressional ban on using federal funds to write final regulations expired.

One of the ban's sponsors was Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Interior Department.

Shale deposits in northwest Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are thought to hold more than 1 trillion barrels of oil. About 800 billion barrels of that are believed to be recoverable.

Four companies have received 160-acre parcels of public land for oil shale demonstration projects in Colorado and Utah, and Shell Exploration & Production has been running tests on private land in Western Colorado since the mid-1990s.

Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd said the company will likely file for a permit to work on its research lease within the next year.

Ritter has said research should continue without moving ahead with a plan for commercial development. BLM officials, though, have said they took longer to complete the plan and regulations than mandated by the 2005 federal energy bill.

In October, Foster Wade, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals, said individual projects still would go through at least two rounds of environmental reviews, and more than 40 federal, state and local agencies would be involved in issuing permits.

The Center for Biological Diversity's Thrailkill said the problem is the courts have ruled that the intent of the federal Endangered Species Act is to identify problems and solutions as early as possible.

"I think it's going to be more difficult for the government to say 'no'" later, she said.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton