Following a tip from HCN contributing editor, Craig Childs, I purged 500 words for this blog in 30 minutes, a stick-‘em-up way of pilfering my brain for production and creativity. I scored a good foundation, but since I’m still an apprentice, the rest was babble. The guiding rule for now is that haste makes waste.
The same lesson can be drawn from former President George W. Bush’s 2008 decision to open 2 million acres of BLM lease lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to oil shale and tar sands development during the twilight of his presidency. In his haste, Bush, known by some as the founder of post-modern Republican faux pas, conveniently approved this gigantic land deal without doing an environmental assessment. He also set the royalty rates at five percent, significantly less than the typical 12.5 percent that the oil and gas industry pays on federal minerals – essentially handing them a subsidy.
A plan like that could only end up in court, where a bunch of time and money was wasted getting the government to do what it should have done in the first place. A cadre of environmental groups sued the Department of Interior over the plan’s air quality and climate change caprice. They argued DOI’s plan also ignored lands with wilderness potential or critical sage grouse habitat.
After settling out of court with the enviros in 2009, Obama’s Department of Interior agreed to reconsider the lease acreage, royalty rates and environmental impacts. In February, Secretary Ken Salazar announced he preferred an alternative to Bush’s plan that would reduce the lease acreage from 2 million to 462,000 acres.
Public comments on the management plans for these acres are being accepted until May, and the DOI isn’t expected to make a final decision until 2013. State or county officials in Wyoming haven’t said much. But Utah’s modern-day sagebrush rebels joined Garfield County, Colo., commissioners this week and went berserk.
“I have never seen such an aggressive effort by an administration to obliterate energy opportunity and energy development,” head of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s public lands office, Kathleen Clarke, told Deseret News. Clarke was Bush’s director of the Bureau of Land Management from 2001 to 2005. For her and others, Salazar’s preference has further stoked their revived effort to reclaim federal lands for the state.
But does reducing the federal land available for oil shale and tar sands extraction really matter as much as Clarke implies? Hardly.
The oil and gas industry isn’t suffering from lack of access to developable land in Utah, Garfield County, Colo. – or really anywhere else. In Garfield and neighboring Rio Blanco County, oil and gas companies already control at least 2 million acres. The parts of Utah and Colorado affected by these lease reductions are within an area that contains more than half the world’s oil shale, but these aren’t resources ready and waiting to be pumped into your car at $2 a gallon. Technology to extract the oil doesn’t yet exist. “Oil shale is still a pig in a poke,” as Randy Udall would say. Should BLM be expected to prioritize the potential of oil shale profits above watersheds, climate change and biodiversity?
No. BLM management plans leave wiggle room for future energy development. The plans expire. They get amended. Administrations change. And I bet that by the time the industry develops some effective oil shale tools on the 462,000 acres Salazar wants to give them, the plan will get a second look.
Industry and sage rebels need not worry. There’s a bill headed to the House right now that would force Salazar to open more federal lands to oil and gas development. There’s another to speed up the processing of permits so wells can be drilled faster. Industry holds drilling rights to 10 percent of the land in the Lower 48 and nearly 50,000 oil and gas wells are set to penetrate the nation’s crust this year – greater than the sum of all new wells going into production elsewhere on the planet. By swiping this lease acreage off the table, Salazar and environmentalists only hope to scurry a portion of them away before the energy haste makes waste of it all.
Photo courtesy of Roger Blood.