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Energy industry proponents howled while environmentalists raised a tepid toast Friday to the Obama administration's plans to slash the acreage available in Utah and neighboring states for oil shale and tar sands mining.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's proposal, released Friday for a 90-day public comment period, replaces a Bush-era leasing plan that had opened 1.9 million acres for shale and 431,000 acres for sands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. If it wins final approval later this year, it would reduce the potential leasing grounds to nearly 462,000 acres and 91,000 acres, respectively.
"This nonsensical, bass-ackwards, peekaboo policy is nothing more than political posturing by overreaching federal bureaucrats," Gov. Gary Herbert said. "With no science and no data, and with a wave of their federal bureaucratic magic wand, they just take the bulk of the acreage off the market, stifle innovation, and demonstrate, yet again, that this administration is patently hostile toward even the possible development of much-needed energy resources."
Added Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, "It's a sweetheart deal for the environmental community."
All of the tar sands and more than half the shale grounds are in eastern Utah.
The BLM proposal nearly writes Colorado out of the shale game, leaving just 35,000 acres of the western slope available. Utah's available shale grounds would shrink from 631,000 acres to 252,000. Wyoming, generally seen as having lesser-quality shale, could offer 174,000 acres.
"We're encouraged that the BLM has excluded a number of sensitive areas from its leasing proposal," Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch said, "but there are still places of concern to us that would be left on the table."
Chief among those places is eastern Utah's remote Book Cliffs, known for trophy deer and elk hunts, and the San Rafael Swell. Most of the swell identified as a tar sands resource area in 1981 is off-limits under the new proposal, though some sections, mostly south of Interstate 70, are open. Those areas aren't core backcountry recreation zones prized by backpackers and floaters, Bloch said, but they do boast the area's characteristic sandstone cliffs.
The debate could be moot unless industry can prove an economical way of extracting resources.
The BLM announced the do-over of the old leasing plan last year, partly in response to environmental lawsuits. The review also considered the as-yet unproven commercial viability of the resource shale must be superheated to remove the oil and the potential for significant water requirements.
On Friday, BLM Director Bob Abbey called the new plan a "common-sense approach that encourages research and development first."
"Because there are still many unanswered questions about the technology, water use and impacts of potential commercial-scale oil-shale development," Abbey said, "we are proposing a prudent and orderly approach that could facilitate significant improvements to technology needed for commercial-scale activity."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, rebuked the policy and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees the BLM.
"Today," Bishop said, "Secretary Salazar further illustrated that this administration doesn't care about energy, jobs or the impact this will have on the West."
To date there has been little commercial interest in oil shale, other than a smattering of experiments for extracting energy from the rocks and sands, but homegrown-energy advocates frequently tout its potential as key to U.S. energy independence.
BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said the reduction in leasing zones reflects commitments to both research before full-fledged development and conservation of wild or unique places. Areas with wilderness characteristics essentially roadless acres were stripped from the old leasing plan, she said. Other places gained protection because of their importance to sage grouse.
"We have a responsibility to evaluate acreage for many uses and many resource demands," she said, "but that doesn't mean every use on every acre."
John Weisheit of Moab-based Living Rivers is glad about the acreage reductions but still not convinced that any water-intensive shale mining is warranted.
"There is no [spare] water in the Colorado River Basin," he said.
Unlike shale gas, the more conventional resource that has drawn criticism for the practice of hydraulic fracturing, oil shale is a solid rock containing a waxy bitumen that is costly to extract and refine. Tar sands are similar to the oil sands mined in Canada, though Utah's resource is less soluble and harder to separate from the sand. Both would require strip mining.