Under draft guidelines released Friday, oil shale and tar sands developers would have to demonstrate their technologies work and can yield petroleum in an economically and environmentally sound manner before winning full access to federal lands.
The Department of Interior's proposed rules, which drew a swift rebuke from Republican lawmakers, accompany a major Record of Decision that sets federal acreage open to oil shale development at about 700,000 acres in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming and another 130,000 acres of tar sands in Utah.
The proposed rules "will help ensure that we acquire critically important information about these technologies and their potential effects on the landscape, especially our scarce water resources in the West," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a news release.
"Oil shale would be a big gamble on our water resources," said Bill Midcap, director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "We think it very speculative. This plan protects our water. Industry says they have found ways to use much less water. This plan would make them prove this."
Once the document is posted on the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to comment on the leasing rules, which won praise from wildlife, recreation and agricultural interests. Comments can be submitted through www.regulations.gov.
Ranchers and environmentalists have been concerned with the potential impacts of unconventional oil extractions on water resources, fisheries and wildlife habitat.
"It takes a research-first approach," said Michael Saul, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. "We've got the paradox of potentially rich [oil shale] deposits and world-class fish and wildlife habitat. The government needs to exercise great caution."
The rules allow for the sale of "research, development and demonstration" leases that would be upgraded to "commercial" leases after energy companies satisfy certain conditions and meet clean air and water quality requirements.
But congressional Republicans dismissed the rules as "onerous new government red tape" and accused the White House of thwarting development of Western oil shale, which by some estimates could dwarf Saudi oil reserves by a factor of six.
"President Obama has already locked up 87 percent of America's oil shale from production and today the Obama administration took another giant step backwards with new regulations that discourage production of the available oil shale, sends oil shale jobs overseas and prolongs our dependence on Middle Eastern oil," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.
The rules would affect future leasing as well as eight existing leases covering about 31,000 acres. Only one, Enefit American Oil, is in Utah. Not affected is a proposed tar sands project on federal land at Asphalt Ridge, which has been mined for paving materials for years.
The crucial issue with oil shale and tar sands is that their hydrocarbon bounty is not liquid oil, but petroleum precursors embedded in rock and sediments. In most processes, the resource must be strip-mined and processed to remove the hydrocarbons and convert them to oil using heat, water or chemical solvents.
Friday's Record of Decision amends 10 land-use plans, include those for Utah's Vernal, Price, Richfield and Monticello Bureau of Land Management field offices. It stems from a programmatic environmental impact statement released last November that recommended halving the acreage available for oil shale under a Bush-era decision.
This finding had drawn formal protests from the state of Utah and some Utah counties for allowing too little development and from environmentalists for allowing too much.
Friday's decision shaves Utah's federal land available for oil shale from 671,000 to 360,000 acres, mostly in the Uinta Basin and cuts tar sands by 301,000 acres.