DENVER — A congressional subcommittee hearing on "roadblocks" to U.S. oil shale development gave the energy industry, researchers, residents and the Government Accountability Office a chance to sound off Wednesday on what's needed from political leaders.
Dan Whitney of Shell Exploration and Production Co. said his industry needs a stable regulatory environment and one in which numerous companies can lease public land for research projects.
Researchers noted their need for funding and suggested a specific program focused on Western oil shale.
And Anu Mittal of the GAO said the U.S. Department of Interior should be responsible for gathering data on water conditions now, so any potential effects of oil shale activity can be detected years in the future. Her agency in October had recommended collecting baseline data.
They were among 10 speakers at a field hearing in Grand Junction, Colo., of the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. Rep. Scott Tipton and subcommittee chairman Doug Lamborn, both Colorado Republicans, conducted the hearing.
Lamborn called oil shale one of the most challenging, tantalizing and promising energy sources the U.S. can offer, with potential to help reduce reliance on foreign oil and create jobs. Oil can be released from the shale by heating it, but companies are still researching commercially viable methods.
"It's important we take this opportunity at this point in time to make sure we are developing, responsibly, American resources on American soil and getting Americans back to work," Tipton said.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the country has 4.3 trillion barrels of in-place oil shale resources centered in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, said Helen Hankins, Colorado director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Not all of it may be recoverable.
Six companies have leases on public land for researching extraction methods, and three more companies' applications for leases are under review. "The more companies that are awarded leases, the more likely we are to be successful in finding a commercial path for oil shale," said Whitney, of Shell.
The BLM is reviewing and potentially revising its 2008 plan for oil shale development following a lawsuit by conservation groups that said environmental impacts weren't thoroughly reviewed.
Whitney said revisiting such a recent document will delay commercialization and waste taxpayer money, while Lamborn accused President Barack Obama's administration of stonewalling.
Hankins said the BLM's review wouldn't affect the six companies that already have research leases, and it wouldn't affect research on private land either.
Gary Aho of the National Oil Shale Association said the federal government controls most of the land with the best oil shale resources.
China, Estonia and Brazil already have oil shale industries, and Jordan is among countries looking at developing oil shale resources, said Thomas Sladek, director of Ockham Energy Services. The U.S. has spent decades pursuing a commercially viable and socially and environmentally sustainable path for oil shale.
"We've been chasing this burning of a rock for years," said Jim Spehar, former Grand Junction mayor.
But Whitney said it took decades for biofuels and wind energy to take hold too.
In October, the GAO warned that oil shale development could have "significant" impacts on water quality and availability, though the exact magnitude isn't known.
Jennifer Spinti of the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy at the University of Utah said other forms of energy also use water.
Though exact water use for oil shale production hasn't been determined, it can take 2.1 million gallons of water per megawatt of power generated by a solar energy plant, compared with an estimated 1.8 million gallons per megawatt for oil shale, she said.