Salazar Cleans Up Bush-Era Cronyism in Dirty Oil-Shale Program

Just as support for clean energy and climate solutions is growing among Americans from all walks of life--from Fortune 500 executives to Iraqi war veterans to union members--we learn new secrets about the old forces eager to keep us hooked on dirty fossil fuels.

This week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asked the Inspector General to investigate the oil-shale lease agreements the Bush administration authorized just days before it left office. Negotiated with the help of Gale Norton, Bush's former secretary of the interior turn oil company representative, the leases cover 30,000 acres of public lands, yet they required oil companies to pay only 5 percent in royalties to American taxpayers instead of the more typical rate of 16 percent.

The leases also turned a blind eye to the fact that oil shale production releases upwards of five times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil. 

This sweetheart deals raises a question for all Americans: Do we want energy development on our public lands to intensify global warming or do we want a national energy policy that promotes technologies that are renewable, generate zero greenhouses gases, and create four times jobs as fossil fuels?

You see the vast majority of the world's oil shale reserves are found in the Green River formation in northwest Colorado, northeast Utah, and southwest Wyoming where seven out of every ten acres are managed by the federal government on behalf of the American people.

During the Bush administration, the interests of us citizens took a back seat to corporate profits. Extracting oil from shale involves heating sedimentary rock at high temperatures to turn it into a liquid. It is an untested process; no commercial production is currently operating in the United States today. Yet the Bush administration decided to effectively subsidize R&D for fossil fuel companies at a time when the global energy market is moving toward cleaner technologies.

Salazar's decision to reform the Department of Interior's oil shale program brings welcome change to an industry that has been rife with cronyism and corruption. Salazar said in his statement:

Taxpayers deserve answers to serious questions about why these lease addenda were granted at the eleventh hour, under what circumstances, and at what potential expense to the federal treasure. We must reform our nation's oil shale program.

Not all of Salazar's changes to the program go far enough. I question, for instance, the need to make additional public lands open to oil shale development given the significant amount already under private control. But I am pleased that the new system for bidding on leases appears to place greater emphasis on transparent reviews and scientific findings instead of political favoritism.