Salazar moves forward -- and backward -- on oil shale leases

For decades, energy companies and the federal government have tinkered with ways of trying to extract the vast hydrocarbon fuel reserves buried in rock in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar still has lots of questions about the process -- whether the current oil shale technology will ever be commercially viable, how much water and energy will be required to squeeze the kerogen out of the ground, what kind of mess will be left behind.

Today, Salazar announced new steps to try to get the answers while gingerly poking at another possible Bush-era scandal still dogging his department.

Shortly after taking office last January, the former Colorado senator put the brakes on many of the accelerated energy programs launched in the final days of Bushdom, including efforts to expand oil shale research and leasing. As reported in last April's "The Zen of Ken," Salazar wasn't fond of the quick pace of development or the low royalty rates and favored a slower, more modest approach.

At his press conference, he revealed that Interior will now start issuing additional research-and-development leases, albeit small ones --160-acre tracts that could be expanded up to a square mile if the technology proves commercial enough. He also informed reporters that he'd requested an investigation by the DOI's Inspector General into lease conditions on six tracts that were issued just days before the new administration came to power. The arrangements were made without any public comment, the Secretary noted, and involved "billions of dollars" of potential commercial oil shale development.

"There are some questions about whether these lease addenda are legal," he said.

Energy interests are already grousing about Salazar's go-slow approach to the oil shale question. The idea that he isn't all that eager to turn the western third of his home state upside down and cook it seems downright unpatriotic in some circles. And as for investigating whether the Bush administration pulled a fast one in the deals struck on current R&D leases -- well, that might appease the treehuggers, but it doesn't get us any closer to energy independence, does it?

Salazar insists he's still committed to the "moon shot" of energy independence. But he wants to ask a few questions along the way. Given the boom-bust specter of oil-shale enthusiasms of years past -- the Shell promises and exodus of the early 1980s, for instance -- it might not be a bad idea to check the label before drinking the Kool-Aid this time.