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GUEST COLUMN: Oil shale development requires thoughtful, careful dialogue

By: JEREMY BOAK
December 12, 2011
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Steve Andrews and Matthew Garrington (“Lamborn’s PIONEERS Act big on hype, small on return value,” The Gazette, Dec. 11) quoted my comments on oil shale leasing to Phil Taylor of E&E News, an environmental advocacy newsletter. I want to set the record straight on that flagrantly selective citation.

I said that companies:

1) with existing RD&D leases; 2) in Colorado and 3) for in situ processes, might not need additional leases until they had proved their processes.

The account of recent Congressional hearings ignored my point that surface processing of oil shale is commercial now and some companies might want leases soon for that purpose. I also said that laying out the leasing process now is important to companies making long-term planning decisions on large capital projects. Even the government of a small developing nation like Jordan understands this need. Citation of this distortion runs strongly counter to most comments I have made.

Issues surrounding this resource — environmental impact, energy return on investment, carbon footprint, and water requirements relative to other energy options, will not be resolved in editorial interchanges in newspapers. Andrews’ political assertions (most are technically unsound) can only be fully addressed in extended interchanges like those at the Oil Shale Symposium held every year at the Colorado School of Mines, and attended by real oil shale experts from around the world, as well as residents of the affected areas. Activists like Andrews and Garrington choose not to participate.

(Proceedings are available at: http://www.costar-mines.org/oil_shale_symposia.html.)

It is inappropriate to argue that industry has tried to extract oil from oil shale for a century. Industry has been extracting oil from oil shale in China and Estonia for the better part of a century, and for decades in Brazil. In the U.S., efforts have been sporadic until quite recently because cheaper supply was readily available.

Shell and Chevron are not the only companies interested in oil shale, and their holdings should not be used to assert that no more land should be made available for leasing, unless Andrews and Garrington want the government in the business of picking winners.

Andrews and Garrington do not provide comparative data to show how many billions have been spent on wind and solar power development. Lower royalty rates in the early stage of development of a new industry are little different from investment and production tax credits long sought and received by new alternative energy sources. I would be happy to see subsidies based on net energy generation, letting solar and wind compete on that basis with other energy sources.

It is never wise to bet on the federal government moving too fast. Putting reasonable leasing regulations in place, and allowing them to apply to all oil shale lands that are not withdrawn for specific reasons keeps the government out of the business of choosing which acres can best produce oil from oil shale.

There is nothing like a headlong land rush going on here, or likely in the future — quite the opposite at the moment.

Anyone interested in careful, thoughtful discussion of whether oil shale should be developed should look beyond Andrews’ and Garrington’s attempts to stop development by political means.


Jeremy Boak is the director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research, Colorado School of Mines, in Golden. Viewpoints expressed are Boak’s and do not reflect positions of the School of Mines.

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