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Speaker Boehner Plays Oil Shale Bingo

Bobby McEnaney

Posted November 22, 2011

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House leadership is risking our environment and the nation’s infrastructure by placing bets on a nonexistent industry 

Last Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner and other Republicans released a package of three new energy bills that would create a 5-year plan to divert revenues collected from oil and gas drilling into the federal Highway Trust Fund to pay for transportation infrastructure.  All too predictably, the proposals would gut longstanding environmental safeguards while also opening iconic landscapes such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new drilling operations.

One of these bills would force the federal government to open up millions of acres of federal lands for the commercial leasing of oil shale.  This might be arguably one of the more fantastical parts of this package given that there is literally no such thing as a commercial domestic oil shale industry to speak of.  And the notion that if only we streamlined the federal rules governing oil shale leasing, a commercial industry would emerge instantaneously to provide the needed funds in short order, sparks the question of whether Speaker Boehner and his allies are even serious about their proposal.

Given the Congressional hearings that took place last week on these bills, the evidence points to the fact that House leadership are indeed not being realistic, and are choosing instead to pander to the Drill Baby Drill crowd.  One of those hearings took place on Friday in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, for an oil shale bill introduced last week by Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn.  Titled the “PIONEERS Act,"  Lamborn’s bill would undermine the current federal program governing oil shale resources by giving away millions of acres of federal land that contain oil shale resources to the fossil fuel industry.

In the hearing for the PIONEERS Act, Republicans stuck to the notion that an oil shale industry would thrive only if we eliminated government regulation and interference from environmentalists.  This ignores the fact that oil shale – which is literally a solid rock that contains oil-like substances – has never been successfully commercially developed (despite over a century of concerted efforts).  This promotion of oil shale could be likened to the alchemists of yore, who often thought they were only steps away from turning common materials into gold – the only difference between them and many of the current promoters of oil shale is that these oil shale alchemists are trying to do something that has proven as nearly impossible: turning solid rock into oil. 

The Checks and Balances Project, Oil Shale Bingo

Unfortunately, the House Republicans are fixated on oil shale and consequently have held a number of hearings in the last year touting that the United States can become the “Saudi Arabia of oil shale.”  In order to underscore the myths that have been repeatedly perpetuated at these hearings, the Checks and Balances Project came up with the handy Oil Shale Bingo Card that captures the most overused oil shale myths.  If you did end up scoring at home last week for the PIONEERS Act hearing, it would not have taken long before your bingo card was fully checkered. 

Maybe what is most remarkable about the Republicans’ promotion of oil shale is that they are not even listening to industry backers of the oil shale industry at these hearings – who have said that efforts like the PIONEER Act are premature and even counterproductive given that there will not be an oil shale industry anytime soon. Industry giant Shell, the biggest backers of oil shale, has publicly commented that a viable commercial oil shale industry is decades away due to significant technological hurdles.  And given that oil shale is such a tenuous proposition, there is great concern amongst many in the industry that any intervention to “promote” oil shale by Congress would only undermine current research efforts.  

Dr. Jeremy Boak, a professor who heads the industry-sponsored Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, told the trade publication Greenwire last week that, “"It isn't obvious to me yet that we need to be putting a bunch of commercial leases out there because no one has a commercial process yet. And [industry] admits that," Boak said. "I don't see anybody eager to go out and lease land now when they're still running experiments."”

Similarly, RAND energy expert Dr. James Bartis testified in June at a Congressional hearing, “It would not be advisable to develop detailed regulations that would pertain to full-blown commercial development until more information is available on process performance and impacts.”  At a different Congressional hearing that week, Dr. Bartis also said, “I see no reason to promote oil shale as above other promising areas for advancing technology and creating jobs.”

While there is a need to come up with a bipartisan approach in securing adequate funding for responsible transportation programs, promoting more drilling as a solution for bridging the funding gap is extremely counterproductive.  However, that bad idea would be compounded if we started to depend upon the generation of revenues from an oil shale industry that exists as nothing more than a pipedream. 

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Jeremy BoakDec 2 2011 05:20 AM

This article badly misrepresents my comments regarding oil shale leases. I pointed out that companies working in Colorado were likely to focus on demonstration of in situ methods on existing RD&D leases so as to ensure they could secure their lease preference areas, and that they would not be ready to lease additional acreage. However I also pointed out that commercially available surface processing approaches might lead other companies to seek to lease Federal land for their technology. If NRDC is interested in honest reporting, it would do well to verify such distorted and selective citation from other sources.
Jeremy Boak, Director
Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
Colorado School of Mines
Viewpoints expressed are mine, not positions of the Colorado School of Mines

Bobby McEnaneyDec 2 2011 12:44 PM

Jeremy, thank you for your response. I apologize that your position on the PIONEER Act was not fully represented and possibly mischaracterized.

For everyone’s interest, the following is the full section in question from the E&E article, “Fiery debate expected today on pace of oil shale development”:

"Jeremy Boak, a professor who heads the industry-sponsored Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, said some of the bill's provisions make sense but that it may be too soon to offer new leases before current research projects bear fruit.

He said he was doubtful whether any firms would bid on commercial leases, arguing that the earliest production he anticipates would be after 2020.

"It isn't obvious to me yet that we need to be putting a bunch of commercial leases out there because no one has a commercial process yet. And [industry] admits that," Boak said. "I don't see anybody eager to go out and lease land now when they're still running experiments."

He added that some research lease holders are not moving as fast as they could be to develop their projects.

"Exxon and Shell and Chevron are not in a hurry to get out there," Boak said. "The really large companies have so many options that it's always a portfolio game. I don't think they feel as much under the gun.""

The point of the post was to illustrate what NRDC believes is a fallacy behind Representatives Boehner and Lamborn’s premise that the PIONEER Act will engender a viable commercial oil shale industry within the next five-years. Furthermore, it was also my intent to demonstrate that there is a degree of healthy skepticism from a number of key proponents of oil shale development regarding the rhetoric coming from Congress on this issue, that an oil shale industry could materialize in quick fashion if only for legislative intervention. The article filed by the Environment and Energy Daily on November 18, 2011, is consistent with that premise. But it was a mistake on my part to suggest any single entity’s position on the PIONEER Act, including yours.


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