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Federal environmental regulators have panned the Bureau of Land Management's analysis of a utility corridor proposed by would-be oil shale developers, and accuse the company of withholding information necessary for an informed decision.
Enefit American Oil is seeking a right-of-way across public lands to serve a 9,000-acre mining and processing operation in eastern Uinta Basin. The Environmental Protection Agency insists a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed utility corridor falls far short of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
The 778-page document, the EPA notes, focuses almost exclusively on the direct impacts of building and operating the 19-mile array of utility lines that would convey water, natural gas and power to Enefit's oil-shale operation, known as South Project, and the oil to market.
"Despite the fact this is a very large project, involving surface mining, processing, retorting and upgrading oil shale, the Draft EIS contains very little to no quantitative analysis of the expected impacts. That omission is even more striking given the available information suggests that the South Project would have potentially very serious implications for climate change, and has the potential to exacerbate existing impaired water and air quality conditions," EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath wrote in a July 15 letter.
McGrath gave the draft statement the poorest rating possible and insisted the BLM conduct a supplemental analysis, a complicated process that could set back approvals by many months, if not years. The BLM said it has not decided whether to comply.
The EPA's review aligns with environmentalists' unhappiness with the draft statement, which they say turns a blind eye to an environmentally disastrous operation that would unleash far more greenhouse gases and have a much bigger industrial footprint than a conventional oil and gas field.
"This is a rare rating and [request] by EPA. They are telling BLM to go back to the drawing board because there were serious and potentially huge impacts that were simply ignored by BLM largely because Enefit won't provide information about the project. This is an indictment of Enefit's game of hide the ball," said Ted Zukoski, a lawyer with Earthjustice.
Enefit officials continue to argue their mining and processing operations are outside the proper scope of the draft statement.
"The decision before the BLM applies solely to the short stretch of federal land Enefit is asking to cross with a utility corridor to serve the company's planned oil shale project, and not to the project itself, which will be built on private land," wrote acting CEO Ryan Clerico in an email. The company said the South Project will go forward with or without the utility corridor and the operation plan will remain in flux until the right-of-way question is settled.
"Knowing whether utilities can be provided by underground pipelines and overhead transmission lines, or if other alternatives will be required, is a significant factor in the ultimate design of the project and a major reason why a detailed project plan cannot yet be provided as some interest groups have requested," Clerico wrote, referencing demands made by a broad consortium represented by Earthjustice. These groups include Grand Canyon Trust, Living Rivers and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Clerico said the South Project will have fewer impacts if the BLM allows the utility corridor, which spans the White River where it enters Utah from Colorado.
Enefit's parent is a large state-owned Estonian company that produces oil from the Baltic's kerogen-bearing shales by subjecting the ore to heat and pressure. Known as "retort," this process cooks a premature hydrocarbon into liquid crude.
Critics say the company's history with oil shale suggests it can easily provide information that would help regulators evaluate the proposed operation's potential to generate waste and degrade the environment.
"As a result of Enefit's refusal to provide sufficient information to support a quantified effects analysis, the Draft EIS does not take a hard look at the potential indirect impacts associated with the South Project," McGrath wrote.
But Clerico claimed the BLM did not ask his company for a mine plan, but rather a "prefeasibility study" that Enefit declined to release because of its proprietary nature.
"It's important to note that a detailed project plan will be required as we request further permits from other agencies, including the EPA, from which we will eventually request an air quality permit. This is a long and iterative process involving many different federal, state and local agencies, and requiring increasing detail in plans as we proceed down the permitting path," he wrote.