Time to research oil shale
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's state tourism office recently launched its "Mighty Five" advertising campaign to promote Utah's five amazing national parks.

The catchy and creative campaign highlights Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches national parks. But these are just the teaser for all of Utah's amazing public lands, which lure visitors and their dollars from every corner of the globe.

Tourism and outdoor recreation generated by these parks and all of Utah's picturesque public lands are significant drivers of the state's economy.

Utah's national parks alone generate upwards of $600 million a year in spending. The outdoor recreation industry accounts for more than 122,000 direct jobs and $3.6 billion in wages to Utah workers.

Given this positive economic impact, all Utahns should appreciate the prudent and reasonable plan that the U.S. Department of the Interior recently laid out regarding oil shale and tar sands development in the West. Oil shale and tar sands are unproven industries which pose enormous risk to our public lands, air and water.

Before proceeding with risky speculation in these industries, the people of Utah must be assured that our tourism and recreation economies will not be damaged.

Fortunately, the new federal rules provide a balanced, research-first approach that should help protect Utah's valuable landscapes and water supplies.

The plan is a smart re-thinking of a Bush administration decision, which originally would have set aside up to 2.5 million acres of land for oil shale and tar sands speculation in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

Development of the 2.5 million acres would have put eight National Park Service units at risk, including Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Dinosaur National Monument, and Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks here in Utah.

The new plan minimizes potential impacts on national parks and still gives oil shale developers a very large sandbox for research, opening up 678,700 acres of land for test projects. The largest chunk — 360,400 acres — lies in Utah.

Before companies can get large-scale commercial leases, they will be required to prove that the technology they use to extract oil from shale rock is economically feasible.

Companies must also provide land managers with data on the effects of their activities on air quality and water use and quality.

There are many unanswered questions regarding the impacts of this kind of development on the environment. Perhaps the greatest unknown is the size of the risk to the water supply, which is critical to our communities and national parks.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that, if left unchecked, industrial oil shale development could commandeer as much as 123 billion gallons of water a year — enough for 750,000 households — conceivably pushing an already strained Western water supply over the brink.

Given this risk, and many others, we are wise to proceed cautiously, requiring companies to prove their technology and environmental protections before they can speculate on public lands.

There is simply too much for Utah and the rest of the nation to lose if we do not take a reasoned and research-based approach to oil shale development. The Department of Interior plan is a good step in this direction, one we would be wise to monitor.

But for now, we can sleep easier knowing a much more prudent approach that safeguards national parks and other public land is being pursued.

Erika Pollard is the Southwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which works to protect and enhance America's national parks for this and future generations.