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Oil shale, tar sands meeting disappoints both sides

Published March 14, 2012 9:24 pm

Energy • BLM says gathering was meant to be informational, not for public comments.
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Oil shale and tar sands mines were the threats some came to protest at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management meeting on the Utah resource potential.

For others, it was the agency itself, and what they saw as an overly restrictive approach to developing energy on public lands.

People on both sides were disappointed in a forum not designed for them to speak openly — instead it sought to inform comments that they could submit later — and with a Grand America Hotel meeting room that was too small for the 100-plus participants to move freely.

"I am appalled at this," Lane Ronnow announced after agency officials announced that they were there to answer questions one-on-one, not in front of the group. "Is this the way the BLM conducts itself?"

Ronnow, who said he backs energy development, was joined by mining opponents who said they would prefer to ask questions and make comments as a group because there wasn't room to maneuver.

Asked about the meeting later, BLM State Director Juan Palma cringed at the room's size — "I don't think we expected this many people" — but said the meeting was intended to be informational and not a platform for public statements.

Some environmental activists chanted that the BLM was "stifling" their voices and promoting the "rape and pillage of our lands."

The emotions illustrated the contentious nature of an industry that some want and some fear will strip-mine much of eastern Utah — and that others note is no industry at all until companies can prove their technologies work and are safe.

The BLM proposes to scale back the acreage available for oil shale leasing in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado from a previous plan approved in 2008, from 1.9 million acres to 462,000. It also would reduce leasable tar sands deposits from 431,000 acres to 91,000, all in Utah.

Both resources require heat or chemical extraction of oil from rock or sand, and the commercial viability of these particular deposits is in dispute. Agency officials explained that the proposal currently under review would only designate potential areas for leasing, and that further review would be necessary for any specific lease a company seeks.

Ronnow insists at least one company has a patent for a safe and effective shale process, and he wants the federal government out of the way. "Why don't you let the states manage their own lands?" he shouted.

Enefit American Oil is seeking state permits to produce oil from leases it already holds on more than 30,000 acres of state, federal and private lands in Uintah County. The company can scale up to commercial production in about six years with the proper permits even without federal leases, Chief executive officer Rikki Hrenko said. But Enefit would prefer the ability to expand onto federal lands.

"We'd like to see certainty" in the federal process, she said. The BLM's proposal creates an extra hurdle, she said, by requiring companies to take out a small research lease before applying for a larger production lease.

The Sierra Club counters that offering production leases would just sanction speculation by companies that want to lock away lands in their portfolio. The industry should prove its abilities before seeking more territory, organizer Tim Wagner said.

"If they can't do that [safely] on 32,000 acres, how can they do it on half a million acres?" he said.

State Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said the government owes people more answers about the technology and its effects to the land and water before leasing large swaths of the West.

Lionel Trepanier of Salt Lake City said the mines — if they're even viable — threaten water supplies and could leach chemicals, all to develop a fuel source that's dirtier than conventional oil. Better to shift to a new sources and "a sustainable future," he said.

He had hoped the BLM's process might help educate people about the choice, but said he left Wednesday's meeting feeling the process was "broadsided" by a cramped meeting and that some people left before they could ask questions. —


O For information or to comment on the BLM's oil shale and tar sands plan, visit www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/oilshale_2.html.

The comment deadline is May 4.




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