With the recent release of a draft environmental assessment for two proposals on extracting oil shale, two companies have moved a step closer to obtaining research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) leases in Shale Country. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent reports that the BLM released the preliminary environmental assessment for ExxonMobil Exploration Co. and Natural Soda Holdings Inc.’s proposals with federal approval, citing no “significant effect on the human environment.
Both companies had previously unsuccessfully applied for RD&D leases in 2007 when the first round of leases were issued. The BLM called for more proposals in 2009 and with federal approval these proposals are one step closer to the actual testing phase.
The two companies now await public comment on the draft environmental assessments. The public comment period runs until June 16. Public scrutiny is expected, especially from environmental groups, but if the oil shale companies pass the assessment phase they can begin actual research and development on their leases. Each RD&D lease is on a 160 acre tract with a preference lease for an extra 480 acres if the companies begin commercial operations.
Both companies plan to use an in-situ process to extract kerogen from the oil shale formations in Piceance Creek basin, roughly 35 miles southwest of Meeker. Natural Soda, a major sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) company, plans to extract the kerogen below freshwater aquifer levels to minimize ground water contamination. ExxonMobil will use a similar process and will work below aquifer levels as well. Previous methods of extraction had been heavily scrutinized for their potential adverse effects on groundwater contamination.
“It’s the next step in our evaluation of whether or not we issue these leases,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said.
The BLM’s environmental assessment (EA) combines the two leases in the same assessment because the processes are similar and the lands are adjacent to each other. RD&D leases give companies the opportunity to prove their technology and process both economically and environmentally. “RD&D leases provide the opportunity for industry to test and develop technologies to determine whether they can be viable on a commercial scale,” Kent Walter, field manager of the BLM’s White River Field Office, said in a news release. “This critical research, development and demonstration work will also help us answer important questions about the water demands and potential impacts of commercial-scale development, so that we can forge a responsible and orderly path forward if the technology proves viable.”
The BLM has proposed limiting oil shale leases to RD&D leases until the industry is capable of proving its process. The oil shale and tar sands programmatic environmental impact statement recently wrapped up the public comment period and is expected to be officially released later this year. If the preferred alternative by the BLM is chosen, then leases in Shale Country would be limited to strictly RD&D on limited amounts of land. If the companies can prove the feasibility of their process then more land would be made available for commercial leasing.
To review the BLM’s environmental assessment for ExxonMobil and Natural Soda, as well as how to comment on it, visit the BLM’s oil shale website.