The Obama administration is calling for cutting the amount of federal lands open for oil shale and tars sands development in the Western states, a plan that industry officials say may force companies to look overseas for opportunities.
A new Bureau of Land Management plan calls for allowing 700,000 acres of land for development, reports Fox News
. This is a drastic cut from the Bush administration, which had set aside 1.3 million acres, and the oil industry is outraged by the change.
"What they basically did was make it so that nobody is going to want to spend money going after oil shale on federal government lands," said Dan Kish, senior vice president of the Institute for Energy Research.
Oil shale drilling is different from the hydraulic fracking process being used in places like the Bakken shale region in North Dakota or the Niobrara in Colorado. Fracking breaks through layers of shale rock and pumps out oil.
But oil shale refers to the rock itself. When companies subject the rock to pressure or high temperatures, either by leaving it in place or removing it, oil develops.
Colorado Wildlife Federation Spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the process raises a great deal of concerns about the impact on the region's water and land.
"Water is the most important resource we have in the West," Malmsbury said. "If we pollute that water, if we deplete that water, it's going to hurt everyone out here."
The Bureau of Land Management said it is not against the oil shale and tar sands development, but is restricting the amount of public lands until the processes prove safe, and may release more federal lands in coming years if it is safe to do so.
But Kish said the reduction will force the energy industry to look elsewhere, even in other countries, for development.
"The Chinese are inviting companies in, companies that may have done business in the United States if we'd had a better approach," said Kish. "And we don't even know the total extent [of the potential for oil from shale in America] but it's basically around a trillion barrels ... which would be as much as the world has used since the first oil well was drilled 150 years ago."
But conservation groups applaud the decision, saying drilling can damage the land and its natural resources.
"Why in the world risk our heritage, our hunting and fishing traditions and all of the sustainable economy that comes from that on something that's speculative?" said Malmsbury. "It doesn't make sense from a dollars and cents standpoint."
However, seven different environmental groups plan to sue over the issue, reports KSL.com in Utah
, saying the Bureau of Land Management did not consider the impact of oil development on endangered species in the area.
"The Colorado River has nothing left to give, and it's not in the public interest to allow water-guzzling mining projects to mangle and pollute the productivity of this vital watershed any further," said John Weisheit, Living Rivers' conservation director.
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