WASHINGTON — Congress should not delay Utah's oil shale industry from moving forward, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Utah Rep. Jim Hansen told a Senate panel Thursday.

At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, the Utah officials focused on an untapped supply of oil just waiting to be put to use that could not only increase supply but reduce dependence on foreign oil. In their testimonies, they cited rising fuel prices as one of the reasons why Congress should encourage the development of the industry.

While Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and The Wilderness Society cautioned against issuing federal regulations before oil shale technology is fully developed, Hatch emphasized that he specifically gave the states the power to decide when or if they wanted to move ahead on developing their resources.

"If leaders in Colorado and Wyoming wish to slow down oil shale and sands productions in their states, then I congratulate them," Hatch said. "But is it not right to artificially slow shale development down in areas that are prepared to meet the challenges of supplying our nation with domestic oil."

The U.S. has more than 70 percent of the world's oil shale, with the richest deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming estimated to contain 1.5 trillion barrels of shale oil, said Hansen, who testified on behalf of Farmington-based Oil Shale Exploration Co. (OSEC). The company has a BLM oil shale research and development lease on 160 acres of land in Uintah County.

"If only 800 billion of this can be recovered, that alone would supply all of our current domestic petroleum needs for the next 100 years or more," Hansen said. He called the three Western states the "Saudi Arabia of oil shale."

Congress included Hatch's Oil Shale and Tar Sands Development Act in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The law calls for the Interior Department to complete an environmental evaluation of oil shale development as well as commercial leasing regulation for the resource on public lands. But last year, Congress passed a law that prohibits BLM from spending any money to finish the final regulations, which were supposed to be issued later this year.

This irritates Hatch, who points out that language he put into the final law requires that the Interior secretary consult with the states' governors to determine the "level of support and interest" in oil shale or tar sand development.

"It's an offense to me that this decision is being withheld from Utah's governor and other elected officials in my state, and the fact that there are efforts to delay the decision even further only deepens the offense," Hatch told committee chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. at Thursday's hearing.

"It would be nice to pretend we're not dependent on oil, that we can skip immediately to some yet-to-be-identified alternative 30 years down the line. But we can't," Hatch said. "Truckers and farmers need diesel today. Moms need to get to soccer and ballet practice tonight, Americans want to visit their national parks this summer."

Hatch submitted a letter from Huntsman, who also requested that Senate appropriators lift the moratorium.

"Utah is home not only to substantial oil shale reserves (most of which are located upon BLM lands) but also to businesses willing to develop oil shale using new technology that will make extraction cleaner and more efficient," Huntsman wrote. "We have workers who will benefit from the jobs created by oil shale development, and state and federal regulators who are capable of ensuring that this resource is developed in an environmentally responsible manner."

Huntsman pointed out that as oil rises to more than $120 a barrel and as the country becomes more dependent on foreign oil, oil shale options need to be explored.

"We cannot afford to wait any longer to develop this critical energy resource," Huntsman wrote.

But Ritter, whose state also contains substantial oil shale resources, said establishing a leasing program prior to understanding what technologies are viable "would be a dangerous course, with enormous risk of unintended consequences."

"The approach put forward by the BLM is unwise," Ritter said of the draft environmental report issued earlier by the agency. It is not clear how much water the industry would need, the environmental impacts, effects on wildlife or the amount of energy needed to produce oil shale, Ritter said. He would rather see the moratorium stay in place until the BLM has enough information.

Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society's Denver office, said oil shale development could hurt more than 2 million acres of wild public lands, including western Colorado's Piceance Basin and Utah's San Rafael Swell.

"Federal managers, local citizens and their leaders and the industry itself need additional time to evaluate whether and how well the new oil shale extraction technologies work and how they could affect local economies, communities and the natural environment so key to both," Smith said.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com