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Environmental groups are suing to block the Bureau of Land Management from leasing up to 810,000 acres for oil shale and tar sands development in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, claiming the nation would be better off leaving these "immature" hydrocarbons in the ground.
Specifically, the agency failed to account for potential harm to several plants and creatures listed as endangered species when it adopted its leasing plan, according to a consortium that includes the Grand Canyon Trust and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. But the groups' legal challenge, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver, goes way beyond rare cacti and chub to assert an array of impacts, most of which are disputed by industry and Utah political leaders.
The petroleum in oil shale, a gritty substance known as kerogen, is not liquid, so the extraction process requires strip mining and heating the ore. The molasses-like hydrocarbon, called bitumen, found in tar sands must be separated using solvents and steam.
"This is an era of global warming and the Colorado River drying up. This is the exact opposite of the policy we need," said Taylor McKinnon, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.
While trillions of barrels of oil precursors are embedded in Utah's Green River Formation, widespread extraction could ravage the landscape, guzzle a sea of water, foul the air, yield toxic mountains of spent ore and set off a "carbon bomb" that would hasten climate change, the groups say.
Rubbish, responded Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.
"That's the same old tired misinformation that these groups continue to report," he said. Pulling oil out of shale requires far less energy than environmentalists contend and the process requires minimal water, he said, although water is used for dust control in mining and for reclaiming the mine once spent ore is returned to the hole.
"The question should not be whether or not, but how. Let's make sure we take care of our environment. There are technologies that will allow us to have clean water and air," said McKee, whose county is hosting what could be the nation's first large-scale oil shale and tar sands developments.
The suit is not likely to impede these projects, which are proposed for non-federal land. Estonia-based Enefit American Oil hopes to begin oil shale mining on private land near the Colorado state line and Canada-based U.S. Oil Sands intends to mine tar sands on state land at PR Springs.
But McKee is hardly a fan of the oil shale plan, which allocates 678,000 acres of BLM land for oil shale and 132,000 acres for tar sands development most of it in the Uinta Basin. This plan, adopted in November, cuts the amount of public land available for development by two-thirds relative to its earlier Bush-era incarnation, which drew legal challenges from environmentalists.
The Obama administration agreed to retool the plan to settle earlier suits, but environmentalists say BLM still got it wrong the next time around by ignoring its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
"They are required to consult with the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure these land allocations, in whole, don't jeopardize threatened or endangered species," McKinnon said. "They skipped that step. We think it's an important step."
Citing BLM's own data, the new lawsuit says oil shale consumes 2.6 to four barrels of water for every barrel of oil it yields. And each barrel yielded produces about one ton of waste shale that holds arsenic, boron, selenium and other toxic metals.
"In time toxins can be released into groundwater, run off into rivers and ingested by burrowing animals. There's a whole suite of ways toxins can become mobile and taken up into the living environment," McKinnon said. "We have fish that are already dangerously close to extinction [such as bonytail chub, razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow]. The prognosis for water availability for the Colorado and its tributaries is very bad and here we have a proposal for development that would only exacerbate those trends."
The BLM plan does impose environmental safeguards at the project level and requires companies to prove their processes are technologically viable before they can begin commercial operations.
Attempts to reach BLM for comment Friday were unsuccessful. The state, meanwhile, has appealed the oil shale plan, saying it places too many restrictions on leasing.
"Why should we arbitrarily limit where development occurs?" McKee said. "There is enough resource here to fuel our country for 100 years."