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Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS by the Bureau of Land Management

May 05, 2011
by John Weisheit


  • All federal leasing for oil shale development in Utah and Colorado have expired or have been relinquished.
  • Activities for tar sand development in Utah have ceased.



The Energy Policy Act of 2005 generated a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) conducted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to evaluate the development of tar sands reserves in Utah and oil shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming (Map).

A lawsuit was later generated by a coalition of environmental groups on the grounds that the PEIS did not sufficiently address the cumulative impacts on the environment. A settlement was achieved with the federal government to reopen the process to address these concerns.

Of special concern is the impact oil shale and tar sand (OSTS) extraction will have on water resources, especially since the demand for water in the Colorado River basin exceeds supply.

In October of 2010, the Government Accountibility Office (GAO) issued this report:

Energy-Water Nexus: A Better and Coordinated Understanding of Water Resources Could Help Mitigate the Impacts of Potential Oil Shale Development

On 2/15/11 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued this press release with Bob Abbey, the director of the BLM.

On April 14, 2011, BLM published in the Federal Register a Notice of Intent to Prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) and Possible Land Use Plan Amendments for Allocation of OSTS. 

In the current Notice of Intent, the BLM will consider whether it is still appropriate for the land identified in 2008 to remain open for oil shale and tar sands leasing and development, in light of the nascent character of the technology for development of these resources.


BLM needs reliable information on how much oil shale development would change the landscape, and it must understand the potential effects on water supplies, air quality, public health and wildlife before it considers commercial leasing. The BLM does not have enough information to consider dedicating public lands to commercial leasing at this point.

A watershed of two million acres will be destroyed

The BLM plan released in 2008 for oil shale allocated 2 million acres in UT, WY and CO for commercial leasing. This is a massive amount of public, taxpayer land that would be sacrificed for a singular use of the landscape; the BLM should reconsider this decision, and consider alternatives that protect the wildlife habitat, water, and air in the West.

Oil shale is projected to have huge impacts on water supplies in the West.

We dont know about the real impacts of commercial oil shale to water supplies in the West, but we know they will be significant.  The latest water use estimates range from 3 times the amount consumed annually in Mesa County, Colorado (110,000 acre ft) to 50% more than the Denver Metro area consumes annually (378,000 acre ft). Either scenario would have enormous impacts on the West. We should not consider commercial development of oil shale before we know those impacts.

Oil shale would require a huge amount of electricity.

Oil shale requires a huge amount of electricity to heat it enough to extract a liquid from the rock.  The
Bureau of Land Managements (BLM) initial estimates show that producing 1 million barrels per day would require ten new coal-fired power plants, each with a capacity to power a city of 500,000 people. The BLM should very carefully consider the serious impacts of new energy required for oil shale development.

Oil shale would have significant impacts to wildlife and fish populations.

The land overlying oil shale resources in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming is some of the best wildlife habitat in the West. We dont know the true impacts that oil shale could have on wildlife populations, but we know that elk, deer, and aquatic species could be seriously impacted by a full-scale oil-shale industry.  BLM estimated in its draft EIS that large-scale oil shale development would result in the permanent loss of up to 50 percent of BLM stream fisheries in the area of development, up to 35 percent of Colorado River cutthroat trout fisheries, and up to 11 percent of available nest and brood range for blue and sage grouse.

Research and development leases have shown us nothing so far.

We have had 6 research and development projects in place on federal lands since 2007, with 3 more recently approved by Secretary Salazar, and tens of thousands of acres of oil shale private lands owned by industry. The BLM should not consider allocating millions of acres of western lands for oil shale without any information from oil shale research and development leases on federal lands.

Oil shale is a dirty fuel of the past.  We should be focusing on clean fuels of the future.

Simply put, as a nation we should be investing in clean energy sources of the future, not wasting our time promoting dirty energy sources of the past like oil shale and tar sands.


  • Click here to read the story by David Williams in the Colorado Independent
  • Click here to read the story by Dennis Web in the Grand Junction Sentinel.
  • Click here to read this Associated Press article by Chi-Chi Zhang.



Previous Oil Shale & Tar Sands Programmatic EIS


2008 Final PEIS

1973 Prototype Oil Shale Leasing EIS

1983 Naval Oil Shale Reserves EIS

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