One-hundred thirty-one years ago, the following article was published in the Deseret News:

"Oil shale — We have seen a specimen of oil shale, from a large deposit discovered in Spanish Fork Canon(sic). Judges say it is an excellent article, and well adapted for the manufacture of burning gas, petroleum, &c.(sic)

We understand some steps are being taken by some capitalists of this city to develop the claim, which is said to be valuable." — Sept. 5, 1877

Here we are, more than a century later, and oil shale has yet to deliver on its promise.

But we keep hearing about its potential, don't we? Why, there's more oil locked up in that rock than the entire Middle East. Some estimates say there are 800 billion barrels of shale oil in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, largely on public lands. With crude-oil futures rising to $120.92 a barrel on Monday, it's time to open up the shale fields, right?

Not if you ask Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. In a recent letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, Gov. Freudenthal referred to oil shale as an "unproven and unknown resource." He urged caution in developing a commercial leasing program. This is interesting, considering that Wyoming is one of the leading energy-producing states in the nation.

In Utah, every member of the congressional delegation is on the oil shale bandwagon. Last week, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, pushed an energy bill through the House, which included a provision to allow Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to decide whether to open up oil-shale fields in their states for development.

After earlier stating their expressed desire to move ahead with oil-shale exploration activities, Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon opposed the measure, which now goes to the Senate for its consideration. Both Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett favor opening up public lands for oil-shale activities.

I suspect that House Republicans don't want anything to do with a Democratic-backed measure passed in September because there's an election in six weeks. Congress has a full plate in attempting to figure out a financial bailout for Wall Street, so this matter may well be shelved. However, a federal moratorium on oil-shale development in the region is set to expire next month, which suggests something needs to happen fairly soon. On Monday, Matheson convinced Democratic House leaders to include language to lift the ban.

Technology has, unquestionably, improved since Colorado's oil-shale bust in the early 1980s. Yet, the very companies that have invested in oil-shale leases and research activities are cautiously optimistic about the prospects. The Associated Press reports that Anadarko Petroleum, the only major oil and gas company with significant oil-shale holdings in Wyoming, says it's not preparing to start developing oil shale in the state. "We're not actually looking at any of that," Anadarko spokeswoman Paula Beasley said.

Chevron has some 200,000 acres of private shale lands in Utah and Colorado. It has a lease on some 30,000 acres of public land, too, according to Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. Isn't that sufficient land for demonstration projects?

Salazar, who is intensely familiar with the boom-bust nature of mining and energy development in the West, also urges caution. "How is a federal agency to establish regulations, lease land and then manage oil-shale development without knowing whether the technology is commercially viable, how much water the technology would need (no small question in the arid West), how much carbon would be emitted, the source of the electricity to power the projects or what the effects would be on Western landscapes?" Salazar wrote in an op-ed article published by the Washington Post.

The truth is, I lack the insider knowledge available to the men and women who serve in our Congress. My gut tells me that opening large tracts of public land to exploration and research activities would rev up energy speculation. Perhaps that would drive down oil prices for a while.

If all we care about is finding alternative sources of energy, by all means, sacrifice the public lands. I'd like to think we're a bit more evolved than that. It's not enough to find energy. We need to develop energy sources that don't pollute our air, damage our lands, demand huge amounts of our precious water and require significant electrical production to extract the resource.

Folks, oil shale doesn't fit that bill.


Marjorie Cortez, who believe the notion of "energy independence" is a pipe dream, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected].