We Are One President Away From a Future of Fossil Fuel Addiction

On October 1st a long-standing ban on the commercial development of oil shale on federal lands expired. That means America is now on the edge of an abyss, about to take the plunge into an endless fossil future. The steady march toward this awful future of extended oil addiction is a fact hidden in plain view.

It is a march being aided and abetted by half a billion dollars of oil and coal lobby money, by the recent votes of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and by a media more lap dog than watchdog. Though unintended, even all the campaign talk about a clean energy economy is serving to obscure this clear and present danger.

Oil shale is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels known to man. Its extraction releases two to five times more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil, and uses vast amounts of water. In Western lands where oil shale deposits are abundant, water is already in scarce supply.

America's energy and climate future will be determined by what the nation decides to do with its deposits of oil shale. There are as much as 1.8 trillion barrels of oil locked up in shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. There's more oil in the shale than there ever was in Saudi Arabia. It's value? More than half a trillion dollars over a 25-year period. It's the most important energy issue there is, and almost no one is talking about it.

Here's what you have to do to extract oil shale. Oil workers start by constructing a five foot thick wall around a 1000-foot square foot cube of the Earth. They drill deep holes into the cube at 25 foot intervals and insert massive electric heating coils. The coils are turned on and left on continuously for two or more years at 650 degrees F. Finally, the oil slides out of the shale. You've heard of electric cars? This is electric oil.

If oil shale gets developed, the nation and the globe will be sent on a path to an endless fossil future and a steep acceleration of global warming pollution. Forget clean energy. It will be lights out, game over.

The Bush-Cheney administration has been working for eight years to open federal lands -- where the oil shale rests -- to oil companies, and they are on the brink of success. That means that the only thing standing in the way of an endless fossil future is the next president. John McCain has already voiced his staunch support for development of these resources. But the Republican machine, and a pliant media, have managed to focus the nation on a distraction: offshore oil, even though there's only a small puddle of the stuff. Offshore, we'll get 1.2 percent of US oil supply twenty years from now.

The oil industry has almost secured rights to federal lands where the oil shale is. Without firing a shot, they purchased the regime at home. Then they pulled the wool over America's eyes, using the most effective propaganda tools money can buy from the public relations industry. While hollering about offshore oil, they uttered precious little about oil shale itself, and absolutely nothing about how its oil is extracted. So when the ban on offshore oil drilling expired, no one noticed that the ban on oil shale development expired, too.

So Congress has now allowed the door to swing open to "develop" almost two million acres of oil shale deposits. It has granted permission to the oil industry to initiate a cube-by-cube boiling of the earth itself, the consumption of every last drop of water in the Colorado basin and the unconscionable acceleration of global warming pollution.

This diabolical outcome -- worthy of a cackling criminal mastermind in a James Bond thriller -- has been in the making since early in the Bush-Cheney administration's first term. An overt federal program for oil shale development emerged into public view in the Energy Act of 2005 -- in Section 369 -- which required the Department of the Interior to develop a commercial leasing program for oil shale. The Department is about to issue a final development plan.

Since Congress has dutifully provided the kicker by allowing the oil shale moratorium to expire, the leasing plan can now move forward. The administration's simultaneous orchestration of these two final oil policy movements is the culmination of years of effort, a chilling parting legacy.

The only factor still remaining in the way of an endless fossil future is the next President. The oil shale leasing program will be under his control, and so the upcoming election presents voters with yet another fateful choice.

It is clear what another Republican administration will bring. Last June, Senator McCain unveiled his energy plan and called for offshore drilling and oil shale development. Since then, contributions to his campaign from the oil industry have soared.

For his part, Senator Obama has refused oil money. His stance on Alberta's tar sands -- a dirty fuel very much like oil shale -- remains "an open question," much to the dismay of the Canadian government, but so far, he has been silent on oil shale. Senator Obama would do well to clarify his stance on oil shale development, and offer voters a crystal clear alternative to the endless fossil future, which is closer than anybody cares to admit.

Oil shale is the energy story of the century. It is the policy crossroads. If the nation continues on the path prepared by Bush-Cheney and embraced by McCain-Palin, it leads to an endless fossil future. That's the key story, the key choice.

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