Nominations for three more leases of federal land in Colorado and Utah for oil shale research are advancing for more review, the Bureau of Land Management said Wednesday.
The announcement raised an outcry from an environmental group that says an initial round of six leases awarded in 2007 has yet to produce meaningful research.
Oil shale resources in deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming hold an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable oil, the BLM has said, but companies are still trying to find a commercially viable way to extract the petroleum.
The latest round of potential research leases involves nominations by Exxon Mobil Corp. and Natural Soda Holdings Inc. for land in Colorado and by AuraSource Inc. for land in Utah.
A team of representatives of the governors of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming; the Colorado School of Mines; and the Department of Energy evaluated the nominations for economic viability, technical ability and plans for managing environmental impacts before recommending that all three advance, the BLM said.
This time around, the amount of land up for grabs shrank from 5,120 acres to 640 acres under a 10-year lease term. There are also reporting requirements regarding impacts to water and climate, plus deadlines for lessees to move ahead with development plans.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said the process would answer help questions about the feasibility of technologies for recovering shale oil, how the environment and communities would be affected, and how much of the states' scarce water resources might be used.
"As I have always maintained, these questions must be answered before oil shale research can transition to commercial development," the Democratic governor said in a written statement.
Western Resource Advocates said more leases aren't needed yet.
"There already are ample lands to test these technologies, and the existing first round of research leases are stuck in neutral," said David Abelson, oil shale policy adviser for the group. "Let's let those play out first and see the information which is gleaned from that research before we start committing additional public resources for this type of research."
Exxon Mobil wants to test its own technology, though, and wasn't part of the first round.
"A phased leasing program offers a balanced, gradual and protective approach that promotes the development of a wide range of technologies to maximize recovery and minimize environmental impacts," said Patrick McGinn, a spokesman for the company.
Representatives for AuraSource and Natural Soda didn't return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The state reviews of the latest nominations could take up to 18 months. The process will include an opportunity for public comment.
"The BLM is committed to careful consultation with all affected stakeholders in the oil shale process, including states, counties and tribes," BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a written statement. "The analysis that our states will now conduct will help us chart a wise path for western shale oil resources."