New Acreage Available for Lease to Oil and Tar Companies

Apr 5, 2013

The Department of the interior has opened up new land for oil and gas companies to lease.

Late last month, the US Interior Department finalized a new set of rules pertaining to Oil Shale and Tar Sands development on federal lands.

A new ruling by the Department of the Interior means that 680,000 acres of BLM land in the west will be available for leasing for research and development of oil shale, and nearly 130,000 acres will be opened up for testing tar sands production in Utah.

Those numbers are much lower than first planned, when rules on oil shale and tar sands leases were crafted in the waning days of the Bush Administration.

Originally, more than three times the amount of land would have been set aside for testing the development of these crude-oil substitutes - but Environmentalists mounted a legal challenge to the policy.

Dennis Willis, a retired BLM Recreation Planner, says that the Interior Department’s newly-released rules make sense for federal lands.

“Basically the rules that were adopted greatly reduce the amount of acreage initially available for oil shale and tar sands leasing and it requires companies to be able to demonstrate that their development can be commercially violable and actually produce a product and that it can be done so in a way that protects the lands and waters in the west…which is great news for land and water in the West.”

The amount of land open to leasing for research and development is more than David Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Association would like to have seen, but he praised the new ruling nonetheless and echoed Willis’s comments that an untested technology shouldn't tie up federal lands leases.

“Our concern was that many of the proposed sites are in the viewshed of the National Pars…larger than Canyonlands… puts the responsibility back on industry to prove that this can be done in an economically and environmentally sound way – neither of which has been proven.”

Oil shale and tar sands are both extracted from sedimentary rock. Oil shale in particular requires high-temperature processing to extract Kerogen, from which liquid hydrocarbons can be produced. The extraction process is much more expensive than conventional oil production, and many see the amount of energy and water required as an insurmountable obstacle.

But Republican Representative Doc Hastings – Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, released a statement condemning the new Interior Department policy. Hasting’s statement read:

"The Obama Administration took another giant step backwards with new regulations that discourage production of available oil shale, sends oil shale jobs overseas and prolongs our dependence on Middle Eastern oil."

That statement received strong criticism from a watchdog group called The Checks and Balances Project – for implying that oil shale was an already developed industry, with jobs to kill.  

The new Interior Department decision amends 10 BLM land-use plans in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.