Casper — Watching Wyoming voters line up out the polling-place doors earlier this month, in lusty support of the “drill baby drill” philosophy of natural resource management, one recalls the bumper sticker prayer from our economically stagnant 1980s and 90s: “Lord, give us one more boom. We promise not to screw it up this time.”
Well, the nation voted for change in the form of Barack Obama, and Wyoming voted for change too: an even more grievous assault on our public lands in a quest to squeeze out a few more dribs and drabs of energy. Both now look like they’re going to get their way.
While the change the nation sought starts on January 20, the fresh attack on fossil fuels began last week and will be all but wrapped up by Inauguration Day, courtesy of a Bush Administration regulatory midnight massacre being plotted by the outgoing heads of our land management agencies.
Exhibit A: The Nov. 17 issuance of new royalty rules covering oil shale deposits underlying Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. D.C.’s lame-duck leadership, completely unfazed by the spectacular collapse of local economies across the region caused by the 1982 fizzle-out of massive oil shale recovery projects, is ordering up a fresh boom in the rock-cooking trade, and setting a barren table for a financial and environmental bust of unprecedented proportions when this energy-wasting, habitat-destroying and water-guzzling folly ultimately fails.
Here’s what the U.S. Department of Interior wants to do. Locked up in old lakebeds beneath our sketchy topsoil is a shale formation full of the decayed remnants of vegetation that lived, turned carbon from the sky into food, died, was buried and turned to stone. Interior wants folks like Royal Dutch Shell to get busy cooking up that rock underground and drawing off the hydrocarbons resting inside, to refine into fuel. To prod the industry into fulfilling this vision, Uncle Sam is offering to slash the royalty paid to his Treasury to just 5 percent, well below half the lowest typical share taken for ordinary gas and oil development. After five years of production, the royalty would jump back to normal rates — an odd incentive indeed in a region where every elected official in the last 40 years has decried our boom-and-bust economic rhythms.
Some of the Seven Sisters oil companies showed up in Wyoming and Colorado a generation ago with a similar dream. Energy prices were out of sight and marginal oil shale plays looked vital to energy security and future growth of the industry. Then the oil shock ended and so did the companies’ interest. Outside the locked gates of a once-multibillion-dollar infrastructure on “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, they left behind a nightmare of boarded-up, worthless houses, workers juggling three housecleaning gigs to pay their bills, and a chalice of contaminated groundwater that still leaves a bad taste today.
Back then, developers thought they had a pretty straightforward way of getting energy out of the shale. By mining and cooking the rocks, kerogen could be extracted for refining. Of course, it came with some complications, to say the least.
“It just requires these enormous amounts of energy,” sighed Craig Thompson from his office at the college in Rock Springs on a recent afternoon. The environmental engineering professor was himself a shale worker in the ’70s, and researched its disastrous aftermath throughout the bleak ’80s. I found him hard at work on an op-ed piece on this new royalty proposal. (Full disclosure: Craig is a friend and serves on the board of my employer, Wyoming Conservation Voters. He also unfailingly has his eye on the ball.)
Shale in the old days was a sort of energy perpetual motion machine. Energy prices had to be high enough to promise cost coverage for the mining and mashing, but not so high that the outrageous quantities of diesel required for the operation didn’t flip the whole enterprise upside-down. There turned out not to be enough room to maneuver in that narrow spread, and nowhere near enough to cover the costs of remediation for decades to come. That fell to the taxpayers, Thompson warned, pointing to abandoned shale plays in Sweetwater County that are still poisoning the water table.
In this generation of shale development, a new method is in vogue. The idea is to drill right into the ground, heat the rock in place, and draw off the fuelstock. Since that would heat up the groundwater pooled atop the shale, threatening to dissolve arsenic and whatnot into the precious water resource, developers would further burn energy to freeze the groundwater around the well so it couldn’t interact with the contaminants.
Heating and cooling the earth at the same time. Where will we get all the energy to turn the desert ground into a frost-free freezer? Thompson asks. Especially when the end product, he adds, has less energy content than the garbage in a city landfill? And what of the water needed for construction, and processing, and reclamation? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just give everyone in the region a solar cell and a grid hookup? Thompson implores.
And has anyone noticed that southwestern Wyoming’s public lands are already heavily strained by the oil and gas development that’s been building for the last eight years? And that even environmentally positive gestures like wind farms and potential carbon-injection fields will have a thudding impact on sportsmen and wildlife?
Governor Freudenthal and the cooler heads among Colorado’s gifted congressional delegation are warning us that this and other last-minute Bush energy gambits (like September’s surrender of 1.9 million more acres to possible shale leases) will leave us a mighty pile of ashes to stir bitterly in the future, if we don’t speak up now and bring some common sense back to our Western energy policy.
Somehow, at the governor’s phenomenally well-attended “Building the Wyoming We Want” conference in January, nobody got up to say the Wyoming we want is an artificial, taxpayer-subsidized, black-gold rush that will crater once clean energy solutions finally capture the nation’s political backing and the royalty goes back up.
Watching this disaster hurtling toward us, one can’t help but wonder if the bumper stickers of the past should have been a little more honest.
“Lord, just give us one more bust. We promise it will be the worst ever.”