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Court Asked to Put the Brakes on Oil Shale Fast-Track

January 16, 2009

Several environmental groups have filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to challenge a plan that clears the way for oil shale development in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. While many promote oil shale as a non-foreign answer to the nation's oil needs, the lawsuit references BLM research documenting the lack of cost-effective and environmentally-sound technology to mine the oil shale.

Craig Thompson, a former oil shale worker and professor of engineering and environmental science at Western Wyoming Community College, says producing oil shale requires large amounts of energy and water. He adds, it causes widespread water pollution, which can reach neighboring states.

"I don't think it's a wise thing to do to jump into this right now. Every time we've tried it, it's been a failure economically and environmentally."

Thompson claims the project he worked on caused severe groundwater contamination and still is being cleaned up today, 30 years later. Oil shale seems like a good idea, in concept, agrees Thompson, because of the sheer size of the available reserve, but he says it's not crude oil. Thompson calls it a low-quality, oil-like substance that has to be used in much greater quantities than oil to generate the same quantity of energy. He claims that municipal garbage, and even prunes, have more energy content than the oil shale product.

"Oil shale, overall, doesn't yield a lot of heat. It's a filthy and poor excuse for a fuel."

Shell Oil is experimenting with new technology, but the company has not found it to be cost-effective, according to Thompson.

The National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society are joining the lawsuit, alleging federal regulations approved for oil shale production don't protect water, communities, or the environment. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado.

Deborah Smith/Deb Courson, Public News Service - WY