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Frequently Asked Questions

Glossary/acronym list

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A list of frequently asked questions about the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).

Below is a list of frequently asked questions about the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS. Click a question below to see the answer.

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What is an EIS?

"EIS" is the abbreviation for environmental impact statement, a document prepared to describe the effects of proposed activities on the environment. "Environment," in this case, is defined as the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment. This means that the "environment" considered in an EIS includes land; water; air; structures; living organisms; environmental values at the site; and social, cultural, and economic factors.

An "impact" is a change or consequence that results from an activity. Impacts can be positive or negative, or both. An EIS describes impacts, as well as ways to "mitigate" impacts. To "mitigate" means to lessen or remove negative impacts.

Therefore, an EIS is a document that describes the impacts on the environment as a result of a proposed action. It also describes impacts of alternatives, as well as plans to mitigate the impacts.

For more information on the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS, visit About the EIS.

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Why did the BLM complete a Programmatic EIS?

The BLM has taken a fresh look at the land use plan allocation decisions made in the 2008 ROD to look at whether, given the current state of technology, future leasing opportunities should be focused on lower conflict lands within the approximately 2,000,000 acres currently available for potential development of oil shale, and the approximately 431,000 acres currently available for potential development of tar sands. The PEIS was prepared to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

For more information on this topic, visit Why the Programmatic EIS Is Needed.

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What is oil shale?

The term oil shale generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (called kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago by the deposition of silt and organic debris on lake beds and sea bottoms. Over long periods of time, heat and pressure transformed the materials into oil shale in a process similar to the process that forms oil; however, the heat and pressure were not as great. The kerogen must be heated to more than 750 degrees to convert it into oil because it was never buried deeply enough for nature to convert the kerogen to oil. Oil shale generally contains enough oil that it will burn without any additional processing, and it is known as "the rock that burns."

Oil shale can be mined and processed to produce oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells; however, extracting oil from oil shale is more complex than conventional oil recovery and currently is more expensive. The kerogen in oil shale is a solid and cannot be pumped directly out of the ground. The oil shale can be mined and then heated to a high temperature (a process called retorting); the resultant liquid can then be separated and collected. An alternative but currently experimental process referred to as in situ retorting involves heating the oil shale while it is still underground and then pumping the resulting liquid to the surface.

Oil shale should not be confused with shale oil. In shale oil, the strata were buried deeply enough that the temperature was sufficiently high to naturally convert the kerogen into oil. In shale oil plays, such as the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana, the objective is to find brittle layers in the shale, drill horizontal holes along those brittle layers, artificially fracture the rock, and produce the resulting oil.

For more information on oil shale, visit About Oil Shale. Photos of oil shale and oil shale processing facilities are also available, as are maps of oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

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What are tar sands?

Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a heavy black viscous oil). Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the bitumen, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques. In-situ techniques may also be used.

Tar sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from tar sands is more complex than conventional oil recovery. Oil sands recovery processes include extraction and separation systems to separate the bitumen from the clay, sand, and water that make up the tar sands. Bitumen also requires additional upgrading before it can be refined. Because it is so viscous (thick), it also requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines.

For more information on tar sands, visit About Tar Sands. Photos of tar sand and tar sand processing facilities are also available, as are maps of tar sand resources in Utah.

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How does the PEIS define "most geologically prospective" lands for oil shale?

Most geologically prospective (MGP) areas for oil shale were identified on the basis of the grade and thickness of the deposits in the three States identified in Section 369 of the Energy Policy Act (Utah, Colorado and Wyoming). For purposes of this PEIS, the MGP oil shale resources in Colorado and Utah are those deposits that yield 25 gallons of shale oil per ton of rock (gal/ton) or more and are 25 feet thick or greater. In Wyoming, where the quality of the oil shale is not as great as it is in Coorado and Utah, the MGP resources are those deposits that yield 15 gal/ton or more and are 15 feet thick or greater.

Maps of the most geologically prospective oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are available.

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Why is this definition different for Wyoming?

The oil shale resource in Wyoming is less geologically prospective (i.e., of lower quality) than the resources in Colorado and Utah, and so in order to include Wyoming, as directed by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, different criteria had to be specified for Wyoming lands.

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How does the PEIS define "most geologically prospective" lands for tar sands?

Most geologically prospective lands for tar sands are defined as the Special Tar Sands Areas (STSAs) designated by Congress in the Combined Hydrocarbon Leasing Act of 1981.

Maps of the most geologically prospective tar sand resources in Utah are available.

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What is the scope of the analysis in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS?

The scope of the PEIS includes a qualitative assessment of the potential positive and negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of making lands available for future leasing of oil shale and tar sands resources on BLM-administered federal lands located in northwestern Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming, and a discussion of relevant mitigation measures to address these potential impacts. The Final PEIS proposes land use plan amendments to designate lands available for oil shale and tar sands leasing and future development activities.

For more information, visit What's In the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS.

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Which lands are included in the scope of the PEIS?

The study area for oil shale resources includes the most geologically prospective areas of the Green River Formation, which is located in the Green River, Piceance, Uinta and Washakie Basins of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. This encompasses about 2.3 million acres.

For tar sands resources, the study area includes those locations designated as Special Tar Sands Areas (STSAs) by Congress in the Combined Hydrocarbon Leasing Act of 1981. The total acreage of BLM-administered lands in these 11 areas is approximately 654,000 acres.

Maps of the oil shale and tar sand resources included in the study area are available.

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What are land use plans?

A land use plan is a set of decisions that establish management direction for land within a BLM administrative area, as prescribed under the planning provisions of the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976 (FLPMA); it is an assimilation of land-use-plan-level decisions developed through the planning process outlined in 43 CFR 1600, regardless of the scale at which the decisions were developed. The term includes both resource management plans (RMPs) and management framework plans (MFPs). Land use plan decisions establish desired outcomes and actions needed to achieve them. Decisions are made using the planning process defined in 43 CFR Part 1600.

The land use planning process is the key tool that the BLM uses to protect resources and designate uses on BLM-administered lands. These plans help ensure that the public lands are managed in accordance with applicable laws and regulations under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield, recognizing the Nation's need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber, and fiber while protecting the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water, and archaeological values.

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How many BLM resource management plans would be amended by the proposed action?

The PEIS evaluates amendment of ten land use plans to designate certain lands as available for commercial oil shale leasing, and amendment of four plans to designate certain lands available for commercial tar sands leasing. Four of the plans that could be amended contain both oil shale and tar sands resources, so a total of 10 plans are proposed for amendment.

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Will implementing any of the alternatives in the PEIS result in a decision about leasing?

No. The PEIS identifies lands in the study are that are the most geologically prospective for oil shale or tar sands development, and the Alternatives identify which of these lands would be available for potential future commercial leasing of these resources, following additional NEPA analysis. The Final PEIS is a resource allocation document, and the Record of Decision on the Final PEIS will not make any decisions about leasing.

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What impacts and issues are addressed in the PEIS?

The PEIS identifies and analyzes the direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental, cultural, and socio-economic impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives, and addresses the following issues:

The major issues that are addressed in the PEIS include:

  • Surface and groundwater protection;
  • Air quality protection;
  • Wildlife and wildlife habitat quality and fragmentation;
  • Protection of wilderness, riparian, and scenic values;
  • Cultural resource protection;
  • Threatened and endangered species and habitat protection;
  • Multiple mineral development; and
  • Socioeconomic impacts on local economies.

For more information, visit What's in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS.

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What oil shale technologies are analyzed in the PEIS?

The PEIS examines surface mining with surface retort, underground mining with surface retort, and in situ retorting technologies.

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What tar sands technologies are analyzed in the PEIS?

The PEIS discusses surface mining with surface retort, surface mining with solvent extraction, in situ steam injection, and in situ combustion technologies.

For more information, visit What's in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS.

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Where are copies of the Final PEIS available?

Paper and CD-ROM copies of the Final are available at the BLM State Offices in Colorado (Denver), Utah (Salt Lake City) and Wyoming (Cheyenne); at BLM District Offices in Moab, Cedar City and Vernal, Utah; Grand Junction, Colorado, and Rock Springs, Wyoming; and BLM Field Offices in Vernal, Price, Richfield and Monticello, Utah; Meeker, Silt and Grand Junction, Colorado; and Kemmerer, Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming.

The complete document is also viewable, printable and downloadable in electronic form (PDF) on this Web site on the 2012 Oil Shale and Tar Sands Final Programmatic EIS page.

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Where can I download the GIS data used to prepare the PEIS?

The Geographic Information System (GIS) data used in spatial analysis and maps supporting the 2012 Final PEIS are available on the Maps page on this web site. The data layers include maps of lands that would be available for application for leasing for commercial oil shale and tar sands development under the four alternatives analyzed. These files are intended for detailed viewing and analysis by GIS professionals with commercial GIS software.

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How will the public be involved with development projects on federal lands after the Programmatic EIS is completed?

The public can become involved directly with individual development projects as they undergo site-specific environmental analyses.

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