Jared Polis, zombie killer, dispatches undead oil shale subsidies

Compared to the billions-a-day standard flow rate of tax dollars pouring into and out of Washington, $25 million amounts to scarcely more than chump change. But the passage of an amendment by Congressman Jared Polis yesterday, cutting that amount in oil shale subsidies, is a remarkable break with what adds up to decades of bad federal policy -- and a sharp rebuke of a spurious industry that's brought mostly grief to Colorado.

You might think that the idea of killing off an unnecessary subsidy for a technology that's never been demonstrated to be commercially viable -- or, for that matter, environmentally tolerable -- would be a no-brainer. Shelling out public funds and tax breaks to well-heeled energy companies so they can rip up rocks and cook them, in the hope of producing a crude version of crude oil, just seems wrong. Especially if you've lived in Colorado long enough to remember Exxon's abrupt pullout from its gung-ho pilot project on the Western Slope in 1982, which wiped out thousands of jobs overnight. (For a brief history of a century of dashed hopes about oil shale, check out this report from the Checks and Balances Project.)

At the very least, as Polis argued, the companies ought to be paying for continued research in this moldering field themselves.

But over the years, Congress has continued to coddle and encourage the oil-shale chimera. Even the Obama administration has proceeded gingerly in its efforts to cut back on Bush-era efforts to revive the beast, with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar slowing down the pace but not abandoning the issuance of R&D leases. Democrat Polis's pragmatic amendment squeaked through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by exactly one vote.

That vote didn't belong to any of Colorado's Republican representatives, all of whom are apparently just fine with the subsidies. Even Doug Lamborn, who'd concurred earlier with the notion that the companies should pay for their own rock-cooking experiments, ended up opposing the Polis amendment. But, as previously reported here, Lamborn has a real soft spot for oil shale development, despite being underpaid for all the work he's done to bolster the fossil-fuel extraction business.

Here's a video of Polis telling his colleagues why further public investment in oil shale is a bad idea:

More from our News archive: "Oil-shale plans could be derailed by ruling on Graham's penstemon, an endangered plant."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast