SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The U.S. Department of the Interior scaled back a Bush administration plan Friday to lease Western range lands for development of oil shale and tar sands, the unconventional sources of oil found in pockets of the Rocky Mountains.
Federal officials said they were set to authorize 1,250 square miles of public land for commercial leasing in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. That's a third of the range lands that President George W. Bush planned to offer, and the new administration said it was taking wilderness-quality lands off the table.
On paper, the Rocky Mountain oil shale deposits could yield a great abundance of oil — more than 1 trillion barrels — but environmental groups say it would involve ripping up public lands and depleting scarce sources of water. Political leaders in Arizona and Nevada and farmers worry about a diversion of Colorado River water. Big-game hunters oppose the intrusion of mining. Thousands of pages of comments have been filed on the plans.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it selected the best reserves for oil shale, a rock that contains fossilized algae, a primitive form of oil that never received enough heat or pressure to produce liquid crude. It's also a hard nut to crack — major oil companies are still experimenting with ways to make production economical, notably by baking rock in the ground to release fluids.
The federal government is making about 200 square miles of the federal lands available for tar sands mining in Utah, similar to one project already under way on the state's own trust lands. The BLM issued the decision Friday along with a 6,245-page environmental impact study.
Environmental groups applauded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's caution. Utah politicians called it short-sighted.
"Once again, despite President Obama's calls for an 'all of the above' energy approach, his administration is moving to limit American energy production and the jobs that come with it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "The West has the resources and the abilities to lower energy costs and create jobs but Washington continues to stand in the way. Today's announcement just doesn't make sense, and it needs to be reversed."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., struck a measured response, saying he was concerned about the use of limited water supplies.
"Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing this technology explored further. We need an all-of-the-above energy policy," Udall said Friday. "The Interior Department's decision ensures that we will not be out over the front of our skis with untested technology."