For the second time in two months, Sen. Orrin Hatch was at the state Capitol stumping for the development of Utah's oil shale.
Utah Republicans Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop appeared in front of the state Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee Wednesday to talk about how progress of shale development is being held up by "liberals" in Washington, lawsuits by environmental groups and a moratorium on leasing federal land for shale development.
It is estimated that there is about 800 billion recoverable barrels of oil locked in shale under the Green River formation, which is in portions of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
Hatch said the trend since 2000 shows that there has been an increase of 100 percent in the number of applications for permits to drill, permits granted by the Bureau of Land management and wells completed, while "environmentalist protests" are up 700 percent in that time. He based the drilling figures on data collected from a Utah BLM office in Vernal. Hatch said the current climate allows for any "wacko" to file a lawsuit and hold up energy development projects.
"A common argument used by extremists against oil shale production is that it would take 10 to 15 years to get to commercial production, so we should not allow it to start," Hatch said. "Another argument has been that oil shale development is probably not economic, so we should never let companies even have a go at it. Both arguments are based on fallacious circular logic, but the media continues to print them as though they make perfect sense."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, with less than half of its members from Utah, has five pending lawsuits concerning energy development issues in Utah. SUWA's Stephen Bloch said his group and others are bringing "targeted" litigation as a last resort to "block Bush administration decisions that are allowing for energy development in some of the West's last remaining special places." He called Hatch's "wacko" allegation unfounded, adding that over the past eight years SUWA's lawsuits in federal court over drilling permits have involved a small fraction of the total approved permits.
Hatch also said Democratic leadership in Congress has adopted an agenda of the "extreme anti-oil movement" as their own energy policy. Hatch said the time to develop shale is now, partly because oil companies no longer have the spare capacity to flood the market and roll oil prices back to 25 years ago.
"Other arguments used to defend the oil shale moratorium relate to concerns over water, land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil shale development," Hatch added. "They are valid questions with valid answers. The fairest way to analyze these arguments is to compare oil shale with gasoline and with ethanol, our country's most significant alternative transportation fuel."
Hatch talked about how developing oil shale will require far less water and land than ethanol production. He said the entire process of oil shale production, even without carbon capture technology, emits only 7 percent more carbon than gasoline, compared to 93 percent more with ethanol or 50 percent more by turning to switchgrass for alternative fuel development. Hatch also pointed out how the U.S. has between 1 trillion and 2 trillion barrels of recoverable oil from shale, compared to the world's current oil reserves of about 1.6 trillion barrels.
Hatch is also worried Congress will allow a moratorium to continue that prevents commercial leases for shale projects on federal lands, which make up about 73 percent of the U.S. oil shale resources.
Bishop held up a huge map of the country that depicted how most Western states are made up of vast amounts of federal land, which is in sharp contrast to Eastern states, where Bishop said lawmakers have no problem locking up resources on federal lands.
"This is the mind-set problem we must deal with," Bishop said. Adequate access to roads on public lands, he noted, is critical to developing energy projects in Utah.
Bishop said the country needs to focus on developing alternative energy sources while, at the same time, going after traditional sources such as oil from shale. One by-product of relying on shale oil to someday reduce gas prices, he added, is to help a population of poor people dig their way out of poverty by spending less on energy needs.
Crossroads Urban Center executive director Glenn Bailey called it "curious" as to why Bishop is choosing to connect the shale debate with poverty.
"I just think that it's strange that we don't hear a lot of discussion from our elected leaders about problems of the poor and what to do about it, except when it comes to countering environmental opposition to oil shale and offshore drilling," Bailey said.
Bailey said a drop in gas prices, via oil shale development, significant enough to benefit the poor may never come or, if it does, will be a long way off. He said a better approach would be to develop a program that provides training for low-income wage earners to find "green" jobs in industries that support emerging technologies, such as retrofitting homes and businesses to use solar power. Bailey said the jobs will be a long-term solution in a more "deep and meaningful way."