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Oil Shale: A Viable Energy Source?



May 2, 2011

DENVER - Public hearings begin Tuesday in Colorado on the viability of oil shale as an energy resource. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is encouraging the U.S. to take another look at production from oil shale, but opponents of the controversial technology involved say, "Not so fast."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of a series of public hearings on allowing oil shale development on public lands in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The industry claims oil shale is an untapped energy source that will help wean the U.S. from its dependence on foreign fossil fuels. But Randy Udall, co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil USA, says, unlike other shale energy projects, such as in North Dakota or Texas, oil shale here remains something of a pipe dream.

"Oil shale is a much misunderstood resource. It's the petroleum equivalent of fool's gold. We've been trying to do this for more than a century and we're still in the research and development phase."

The concern is that the extraction process is unproven, costly and difficult, with the potential to alter landscapes and pollute the region's water supplies.

It's not just environmentalists who are concerned: investors are also questioning the economic viability of oil shale. Andrew Logan is the director of oil, gas and insurance programs for the institutional investment firm Ceres.

"It's not an economic slam dunk by any means. It's more like a Hail Mary shot from half court from an industry that's run out of ideas and run out of options."

Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers are concerned about the potential impacts on Colorado's water supply.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union executive director Ben Rainbolt says his group supports energy independence, but some important questions about the impact on the region's watershed need to be addressed.

"We hear anywhere from estimates of one to three barrels of water needed for every barrel of oil produced. Water is already a very scarce resource and the watershed of the Colorado River is the very lifeblood of the ranching and farming community."

Nearly two million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming could be available for oil shale leases under the BLM proposal.

Hearings will be held Tuesday in Rifle, Wednesday in Denver, and Thursday in Cheyenne.

The hearing schedule and locations can be found at tinyurl.com/3pbzour

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO