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Interior Dept. Plans New 'Landscape' for Oil Shale, Tar Sands

PHOTO: The San Rafael Swell area, west of Moab, is a favorite destination for climbing and canyon exploration. Photo credit: Dennis Adams, National Scenic Byways Online.
PHOTO: The San Rafael Swell area, west of Moab, is a favorite destination for climbing and canyon exploration. Photo credit: Dennis Adams, National Scenic Byways Online.
March 28, 2013

MOAB, Utah - The Interior Department has decided how much public land will be available for oil shale and some tar-sands development in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Whether more than 800,000 acres is "enough" depends on whether you're an energy developer.

Bill Midcap, director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said his group supports the changes. The energy boom is using a lot of water, he said, and farmers have been concerned about having to compete for it.

"The industry has said that they can use a lot less water than what they've used in the past," he said. "What the plan allows for is, they have to prove that research to the Department before they can move ahead with full-scale leasing of those public lands."

The Interior Department says its plan is encouraging reasonable research and development of unconventional energy sources, with opportunities for scaling up if they are proved to be commercially and technically viable.

Recreational users of the land have also come out in support of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's land-leasing limits. Jason Keith, senior policy analyst for the Access Fund, a climbers' group and part of the Moab-based Outdoor Alliance, said energy companies aren't the only ones dealing with a climate of uncertainty about which lands they can use in the future.

"We like that they're going to require proof of concept and proof of technology before they go forward," he said. "But we've still got our eyes on some very specific, important areas - in Utah, in particular, San Rafael Swell."

The Interior Department also is proposing additional requirements for developers to take environmental precautions. Those rules - about air, water and wildlife protection and increasing royalty rates - are up for public comment through May.

The land-use decision is online at ostseis.anl.gov and the rule-change proposal is at on.doi.gov.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT