Debate on oil shale bill under way in Congress

Lawmakers in Congress were debating a bill Wednesday that could allow commercial leasing of oil shale throughout the West.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., wants to strip from a pending highway bill a provision for oil shale leasing introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. Polis’ office called oil shale development an “unproven technology” that will deplete water resources and allow oil companies “to lock away more public land at fire sale prices.”

“We shouldn’t risk thousands of real Colorado jobs in agriculture or our recreation economy on a giveaway to oil companies,” Polis said in a statement issued by his office. “Congress shouldn’t hand two million acres of public lands to oil shale speculators and lock these areas away from Colorado families, ranchers and recreation jobs.”

Oil shale development has drawn criticism from environmentalists and farmers. Oil shale can be mined and processed to produce oil similar to that pumped from conventional oil wells. But the process remains more complex and expensive than conventional oil drilling.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents about 20,000 farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, opposes oil shale drilling. Kent Peppler, the organization’s president, recently wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., opposing oil shale development.

“With water shortages and drought on the horizon, we can’t gamble away our water and the farming and ranching industry that we depend on for the promises of oil shale speculation,” Peppler wrote.

The move by Polis comes as Lamborn seeks passage of his oil shale bill. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that shale in the Green River formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah holds more than 1.5 trillion barrels of oil.

The measure would direct the U.S. Department of Interior to hold five separate commercial lease sales by 2016 and temporarily decrease a royalty paid to the government by oil and gas companies. The measure would increase certainty for U.S. oil and gas companies that create jobs, according to Lamborn’s office.

“The federal regulations have been unclear and inconsistent,” a Lamborn spokeswoman said. “They basically have discouraged private investment. This bill has the purpose of streamlining the regulations, the bureaucracy.”

A House vote was expected Thursday.

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