The Standard-Examiner published an opinion piece on May 2, by Ken Theis, entitled "New oil shale decision avoids mistakes of the past," which began with an important warning from philosopher George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Both the article and the BLM's recent decisions on oil shale, ironically, miss the lessons of the past and the realities of the present.
National interest in developing our nation's vast oil shale resources in the early 1980s was largely driven by the still recent memory of the Arab-Oil Embargo. Since that time, the U.S. has continued to struggle with the security and economic hardships created by dependence on foreign oil. Fortunately, over the past 30 years, industry, innovation and technology have significantly changed the global energy landscape.
Innovation and new technologies have led to a dramatic increase in the domestic production of oil and gas, and a significant decrease in imports of non-North American oil. Over the past 30 years, Canada has invested heavily in developing its oil sand resources and is now the U.S.'s biggest supplier of petroleum. During this same time, industry has discovered and developed vast new domestic shale gas and oil resources utilizing state of the art technology. Unfortunately, the economic and security potential of developing the U.S.'s vast energy resources is restrained by outdated policies at the BLM.
The BLM's recent oil shale decision, and the recent opinion in the Standard-Examiner praising this decision, are both stuck back in 1982, before the commercial launch of cell phones or the Internet.
The reality is that oil shale projects have been operating in Estonia, Brazil, China and other countries for decades, producing tens of thousands of barrels of oil annually. Oil-shale projects dot the global map, and commercial projects are being developed in such diverse places as Israel, Jordan, Russia and Australia. Numerous new technologies have reduced the environmental and financial costs, as well as water requirements of producing liquid fuels from oil shale.
For example, new state of the art air emission control and water reuse technologies are now available and deployed in most commercial oil shale operations. Computer simulation technologies unheard of thirty years ago are being applied in a variety of oil shale projects to optimize production techniques. And, innovative new capsule designs allow for integration of a whole new generation of technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration.
Estonia, a nation in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, produces 90 percent of the energy needed for its roughly 1.5 million citizens from oil shale. As a member of the European Union, Estonia produces this oil-shale based energy under very strict environmental regulation. The development of Estonia's oil shale resources has been crucial in developing Estonia's economy and reducing its energy dependence on neighboring Russia. As a former Soviet republic, Estonia has learned history's lessons, and has placed a high priority on developing its domestic oil shale resources responsibly.
The BLM could learn a lot from Estonia about responsible oil shale policy and development. In the meantime, Utahns and the rest of the nation, are stuck with the BLM's outdated and counterproductive oil shale policy.
Cody Stewart is energy adviser to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.