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Utah Oil Shale Project Gets BLM Draft Environmental Review

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on Thursday for what could be one of the nation's first commercial-level oil shale operations, Enefit American Oil's proposed mining operation in the Uinta Basin in Utah.

Oil shale is not the same as shale oil. Oil shale comes from kerogen-rich rocks closer to the surface than shale oil formations. The rocks have to be heated to extremely high temperatures to convert the kerogen into oil. The economics and environmental concerns of oil shale are considerably different from those of shale oil.

In simpler terms, the the Colorado Oil and Gas Association characterizes oil shale as "rock that turns into oil," compared with shale oil, which is "oil locked in rock."

BLM is examining the Estonia-based company's plans to develop a 15-mile utility corridor across BLM-managed public land to obtain the electricity, natural gas and water needed at the plant to produce 50,000 b/d of crude oil from mined kerogen-bearing rock or oil shale over the the projected 30-year life of the project. The crude eventually would be shipped to refineries in Salt Lake City.

Environmental groups oppose the project as being out of step with a carbon-reduced 21st Century. They criticized the project for producing a "dirty fossil fuel" that would inject a significant amount carbon into the atmosphere.

“We know that burning oil shale in a giant oven can produce shale oil; the question that needs to be asked is whether proceeding with this type of project makes any sense in a carbon-constrained 21st century,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Bloch urged policymakers to "turn their backs" on oil shale.

BLM's Vernal, UT, field office announced a 60-day comment period on the proposed Enefit Utility Corridor Project DEIS that it said was prepared to analyze the potential impacts of the five rights-of-way (ROW) applications. The ROW applications cover three proposed pipelines, a 138-kV power line, and the expansion of an existing road, BLM said.

The project area is about 12 miles southeast of Bonanza, UT. Enefit has applied for the ROWs to provide utilities to and transport oil from its South Project, located entirely on private land, that eventually is to include development of a 7,000- to 9,000-acre commercial oil shale mining, retorting, and upgrading operation in Uintah County.

The comment period for the DEIS will conclude on June 14. The BLM will review and respond to the comments received before publishing a final EIS and releasing a record of decision.

U.S oil shale potential is confined to what is known as the Green River Formation in parts of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, including most of the world’s kerogen. While more than 1 trillion bbl of oil are theoretically present in this formation, the Utah Geological Survey has estimated that only about 77 billion bbl in Utah’s corner is economically recoverable.

Proponents seek to mine seams 60-foot thick and near the surface in the Uinta. Enefit and Red Leaf Resources, which has developed an oil shale mine and subgrade processing “capsules” several miles to the west, are poised to be the first in the United States to tap the hydrocarbon in commercial quantities.

Both projects have been slowed and scaled back in the face of the slump in oil prices, and both face fierce opposition from environmentalists.

Enefit CEO Rikki Hrenko-Browning took issue with some of the statements in a joint news release from various environmental groups, especially those saying that extracting oil from the shale requires large quantities of water. The oil shale process uses heat, not water, and most of the water use associated with Enefit operations would be devoted to dust control, he told local news media.

“We are very sensitive to the fact that water is an extremely precious resource in Utah’s arid environment," Hrenko-Browning told Salt Lake City news media. "That’s why we’re committed to designing the project to be a ‘zero liquid discharge’ facility, meaning that all wastewater will be captured and reused on site.”

State officials have indicated that they support oil-shale development with  recommended mitigation measures to protect big game and fish, particularly where the corridor would cross the White River, home to three sensitive species of fish. In her scoping comments, Kathleen Clarke, director of the state Public Lands Coordinating Policy Office, said the project avoids impacts that could hasten endangered status for fish such as the bluehead sucker, flannelmouth sucker and roundtail chub.

The Division of Wildlife Resources “also recommends avoiding and reducing disturbance of riverbank areas, and prohibiting the stockpiling of soils on or near runoff-prone areas,” she wrote. “Heavy equipment should not enter the river or disturb the river bottom.” The overarching goal is to avoid increasing the river’s sediment load, which could harm fish.

The BLM plans to host three open-house meetings May. 3-5 in Vernal, Rangely, CO, and Salt Lake City.

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