As federal officials consider how to move forward on oil shale development, a sportsmen’s coalition is urging caution because no proven technology exists and the impacts on the West’s public lands, fish, wildlife, water and air quality are unknown.

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development said Monday that the Bureau of Land Management’s recommended option, which stresses research first on public lands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, is prudent. The coalition is led by theNational Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The first of four public meetings on the BLM’s draft oil shale plan will be held on Monday night in Silt, Colo.

“The last hundred years, oil shale has been the next big thing, but no one has come up with a viable way to get the oil out of the rock,” said Bill Dvorak, a public lands organizer with the National Wildlife Federation.

“With no technology or process in place, it’s wise for the BLM to proceed slowly and cautiously,” said Brad Powell, energy director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen Conservation Project.

“We still don’t know how large-scale, commercial production will affect our wildlife, water, air and local communities,” Powell added. “The commonsense approach is to move slowly while companies figure out if oil shale can be produced economically without damaging or destroying big tracts of wildlife habitat.”

The BLM’s preferred development scenario in the draft environmental impact statement would protect many key wildlife areas, including habitat for greater sage grouse and Colorado cutthroat trout. Northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, location of some of the richest shale deposits, is home to North America’s largest migratory mule deer herd.

Under the BLM’s suggested option, companies could seek leases for research and pilot projects but pursue commercial leases only after fulfilling the terms of the research leases and proving they could produce commercial quantities. Additional environmental analysis would be required.

The proposal revises a 2008 plan to open about 2 million acres to mining tar sands and oil shale. The BLM took another look at the plan after a challenge from several conservation groups on grounds that it didn’t adequately analyze the potential effects on water quality and supply, fish, wildlife and other resources.

“There’s no sense in rushing to commercial oil shale development,” said Bob Elderkin of Silt, a BLM retiree who worked on oil shale in western Colorado the 1970s and 1980s. “After a century of trying, companies still haven’t figured out how to turn kerogen, fossilized material, into oil in a way that makes economic sense,” he added.

“Shell was saying they were five years away. That was 10 years ago,” Elderkin recalled. “Now they’re saying it’s still a way off.”

The BLM’s public meetings on the oil share proposal are 7-9:30 p.m. at the following locations and dates: Monday, March 12: BLM Colorado River Valley Office, 2300 River Frontage Rd., Silt, CO; Tuesday, March 13: Westin Plaza Hotel, 1684 W. Highway 40, Vernal, UT;  Wednesday, March 14: Grand America Hotel, 555 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; Thursday, March 15: BLM Rock Springs Field Office, 280 Highway 191 N., Rock Springs, WY.

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