SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Interior Department announced its long-awaited decision Friday on how much federal public land in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado will be potentially available to oil shale research projects and the pursuit of tar sands leasing.
The decision sharply reduces the amount of acreage available from what was decided by the Bureau of Land Management in 2008, prior to the onset of the Obama administration and much to the dismay of Uintah County and Utah elected officials.
"It is a tragedy for our state," said Uintah County Commission Chairman Mike McKee. "Why would the federal government want to put a such stranglehold on this when information shows it is energy-rich communities that are doing the best in this country?"
Uintah County and Utah were among the cooperating agencies lending input and other assistance into the crafting of the land management analysis, which ultimately settled on 678,000 acres as the amount of land potentially open for oil shale leasing in the three states. Another 132,137 acres may be leased for tar sands in Utah.
Groups such as the National Wildlife Foundation had cautious praise for the decision and urged the federal government to move forward with care because of potential critical impacts to vital waterways such as the Colorado, Green and White rivers.
"This is very dry country, with very scarce water in these river systems with an industrial process we still don't know how much water it is going to need," said Michael Saul, a spokesman with the group. "It has the possibility to put tremendous pressure on that river system."
The decision on the acreage is a far cry from the 2 million acres contained in the 2008 land management plans adopted by the BLM, which had 431,000 acres of tar sands leasing on the table in Utah. It also zapped 313,149 acres from Utah for possible oil shale leases.
Among the excluded lands are those with wilderness characteristics or habitat for the greater sage grouse. The decision notes that because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to complete its review of Utah's conservation plan for the imperiled bird, the BLM is having to rely on a greater swath of land — the occupied habitat as opposed to critical — to declare off limits for now any development leases. The decision, however, notes that the acreage is subject to change.
Beyond the decision's reduction in scale, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed that no commercial scale leases be granted until the technology is proven on the ground.
Saul welcomed that condition in the agency decision, saying the "research first" approach demonstrated common sense.
"It looks to us to be a pretty good decision," he said.
The three states impacted by the decision are home to the Green River Formation, which is said to contain 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, with as many as 800 billion barrels that are recoverable.
McKee said the decision, which addressed tar sands leasing only in Utah, is a blow because the state contains 50 percent of the nation's tar sands.
"It is extremely disappointing to have that much taken away when the technologies are available," he said.
Opponents to tar sands extraction have launched a vocal, active campaign to spread their message about what they say are the negative environmental impacts of the industry. Among the groups are the Utah Tar Sands Resistance, which has rallied against pending projects in Utah.
Currently, there are eight federal research and development leases for oil shale, including one in Utah. None have been issued for oil or tar sands.
Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen and is distinct from “shale oil.” The largest known domestic oil shale deposits are in a 16,000-square mile area in the Green River formation. Tar sands are sedimentary rocks containing a heavy hydrocarbon compound called bitumen, which can be refined into oil.