Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, won a huge round Monday in the fight to allow oil-shale development in Utah even as environmental groups redoubled efforts against it.
Matheson persuaded House Democratic leaders to include in a bill a provision that would lift a ban on developing oil shale on federal lands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. The bill is needed to prevent a government shutdown.
The language would formally lift a moratorium that Congress imposed last year to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from issuing final rules for oil-shale leases there. Matheson's language would allow commercial oil-shale leases in any state that also approves allowing them, and Utah politicians generally favor that.
Matheson similarly persuaded leaders last week to put an identical provision into a Democratic energy bill. However, that bill has only a long shot at eventually becoming law. Republicans say it allows too little oil drilling, so they may kill it in the Senate and President Bush has vowed to veto it even if the Senate passes it.
But Congress must pass a "continuing resolution" to fund the government through the end of the year sometime before Congress adjourns, which is expected this week, or the government would shut down on Oct. 1.
So such a bill surely will become law soon, and the fight for Matheson now is to keep his language in it as it proceeds through Congress.
"I am really excited that it is in the draft" of the bill proposed by House leaders, Matheson said. "I have been pushing every lever that I can. This is really good news."
He said a draft of the bill is being circulated in the Senate and at the White House, and he is optimistic his language will survive.
"The president says that he is for oil shale. This is a chance for him to prove it," Matheson said.
When Matheson pushed the same legislation last week, it caused several environmental groups to reverse initial support for the Democratic energy bill and oppose it but it passed anyway.
"We had a good vote in the House last week on the same language. That set the table for this being raised again. I don't see any reason for the (upcoming) vote not being as strong or stronger," Matheson said. He said the region could have 1.8 trillion barrels of oil locked in oil shale, more than all offshore resources combined.
Opposition last week included National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger sending all House members letters saying Matheson's language puts "at risk millions of acres of wildlife habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Moreover, commercial oil-shale leasing could lead to dramatic increases in global-warming pollution."
The Sierra Club and Audubon Society also fought lifting the ban on oil-shale development.
Environmental groups were also fighting oil-shale development on another front Monday by blasting, as a public comment period closed, BLM draft regulations that could impact how shale deposits are developed.
For example, Western Resource Advocates said the BLM is, in effect, preparing to subsidize global warming through its proposed regulations.
"The decision to pursue commercial development of oil shale at this time defies common sense, given how little BLM knows about oil-shale development technologies and their impacts," Western Resource Advocates executive director Karin Sheldon said. "With low royalty rates and the consequences for our climate, BLM's rules would subsidize global warming."
Sheldon's group says that current methods needed to extract oil from shale on a commercial scale will greatly increase carbon-dioxide emissions, contributing to climate change.
"Taxpayers should not be asked to support an industry before it is known how royalties will be charged for the product that industry plans to produce and whether those payments will compensate for the damage to public lands and the environment," Sheldon said.The Wilderness Society on Monday also sharply criticized what it called the BLM's push to finalize its leasing regulations for public lands in arid states with already limited water resources, which critics contend will be further impacted by shale development. The group cites experts who believe that commercial oil-shale production is 10 years away while "large-scale renewable energy production from wind, solar and geothermal is available today."