The Rifle City Council appears ready to endorse a revised plan for oil shale and tar sands development on public lands that would open far fewer acres for leasing than the current plan, adopted in 2008 by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In a work session on March 21, council members considered several proposed alternatives to the controversial 2008 decision, made in the waning days of the Bush administration, to open nearly 2 million acres of federal land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to oil shale and tar sands development. Much of the land proposed in Colorado is BLM acreage that sits just north of Rifle.
The alternatives, all of which authorize less leasing than the current plan, were drafted by the BLM as part of a revised environmental impact statement (EIS) on oil shale, required under a legal settlement with 13 environmental groups that sued the BLM in 2009.
According to Mike Braaten, government affairs coordinator for the city of Rifle, the council appeared to favor alternative 3. It would require any companies interested in developing oil shale resources to conduct research, development and demonstration to prove the technology prior to the agency's leasing land for commercial production.
The council's favored alternative would open a total of 32,640 acres in Colorado and Utah to oil shale development, far less than the amount allowed in the 2008 plan, and may prohibit leasing for the development of tar sands, except for one lease currently under consideration in Utah. The 2008 plan proposed opening 431,222 acres in Utah for tar sands development.
"When the council first took a stance, that was their preference," he said of alternative 3, "and they are continuing to lean in that direction."
Sherri Thompson, the BLM's Denver-based project manager in charge of revising the agency's plan, said if alternative 3 was adopted, it would mean that only companies conducting research and development projects at that time would be able to pursue commercial oil shale.
There are currently six research and development sites operating in Colorado and Utah, and three more are undergoing environmental review.
The BLM itself has endorsed alternative 2(b), which would also require research and development prior to commercial leasing. But 2(b) would open a total of 461,965 acres to oil shale development, including 35,308 acres in Colorado alone.
The lawsuit that prompted the BLM to re-examine its oil shale plan was brought by a coalition of western environmental groups, including Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale. The suit alleged that the BLM in 2008 knew too little about the technologies and environmental impacts of oil shale to nominate land for commercial leasing, or to calculate fair royalty rates for companies to pay.
The settlement between the BLM and the environmental groups requires that the agency re-assess existing policies and take public comment. There is no legal requirement to modify the 2008 plan. In the absence of any change, though, further litigation from environmental interests is likely.
The BLM plans to release the final revised EIS on Sept. 14, 2012. A 90-day protest period will follow, and the agency will make its final revised decision by the end of 2012.
Braaten said the Rifle City Council will likely discuss the issue further, and is expected to formally vote on a position at its April 4 meeting.