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Environmentalists Sue BLM Over Oil Shale Move

A coalition of seven conservation groups has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) allocation of more than 800,000 acres of federal lands in three western states to potential oil shale and tar sands development.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, the lawsuit by environmental groups, including a branch of the Sierra Club, allege that BLM failed to address the protection of endangered species in opening public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The coalition signaled its July 25 legal action in May when it provided a 60-day prefiling notice (see Shale Daily, May 28).

Before leaving office, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this year announced his department's final plan for encouraging research, development and demonstration of oil shale and tar sands resources on more than 800,000 acres of BLM lands in the three states (see Shale Daily, March 25).

Oil shale is not to be confused with 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.

The coalition of groups cited a U.S. Geological Survey projection that the acreage in the three states could hold between 353 billion and 1.14 trillion bbl of oil with "high potential" for development. "In fact, it is so high it holds two to seven times as much oil as Alberta's 170 billion bbl targeted in the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal," the groups said.

"[The lawsuit] is necessary because the Interior Department is sending mixed messages to the public," said John Wesheit, conservation director for Living Rivers, one of the coalition members. "On one day, the [Obama] administration issues a statement that the Colorado River's critical water supply will be protected for people and habitat, and then on another day it announces the most carbon intensive mining practice on the planet can move forward."

A contention of the groups is that the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to consult with experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they know listed species will be impacted, according to Matt Sandler, a staff attorney at Rocky Mountain Wild, another coalition member. "BLM has skipped this step."

The other four groups in the coalition lawsuit are Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Early this year, the first oilsands project with longer term commercial possibilities in Utah was approved to move forward from a citizen appeal board for the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. It's backers say it is the first commercial-scale oilsands project in the United States (see Shale Daily, Jan 16).

Sierra Club's Dan Chu, director of "Our Wild America" campaign, said BLM should be managing wild areas for "rich wildlife diversity and recreational opportunities," not for "dirty fuels development on a giant scale."

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