SEN. JOHN W. WARNER of Virginia thinks that oil shale development needs to be rapidly expanded. He's drafted a bill--scheduled to come to a vote in the Energy Committee this week--that increases both the size and the number of shale-mining leases that a company may hold. Mr. Warner's work on the Energy and the Armed Forces Committees has given him a sharp sense of the vulnerability of this country's foreign oil supplies and the dangers to its national security. He worrying about the right things. But the shale leasing bill is the wrong answer.
The case for this bill is the claim that shortages of available land are limiting the growth of a vigorous shale oil industry. That's incorrect. The limits are a long list of uncertainties regarding technology, cost and environmental damage. The simplest method of recovery is to strip-mine the rock and pulverize it. Very large amounts of rock are required to get a little oil and, since the pulverized poil is greater in volume than the original shale, waste disposal becomes extremely difficult. Several pilot projects are under way, but results so far have not attracted the hordes of investors who continue to prefer putting their money into conventional drilling.
Despite initial setbacks and disappointments, oil shale may yet prove an important source of energy to this country. Along with other exotic technologies, it is well worth exploring--on a limited basis. The country needs to have the methods ready if they should be needed, and to know at what costs-- in both money and other values--the oil would be produced. For these purposes, present leasing policies are more than adequate.
If anything, the need for forced progress on shale has faded a bit in the past year. Conservation is reducing the demand for oil faster than most people thought possible, pushing farther off into the future the need for the sources lying beyond the present conventional ones.
Perhaps this leasing bill owes some of its support to a curious habit of mind in the oil industry. Some of the people in the industry react sharply, not to say obsessively, to any government limits on their activity and fight them with a vehemence and persistence beyond all reason. One current example is the pressure on the Interior Department to establish precedents for drilling in the legally designated wilderness areas. They contitute only a tiny fraction of the West's open land, but they appear to have become a symbol of restriction to much of the industry. Perhaps the present limits on shale leasing have acquired a similar meaning. But for the present they are irrelevant to the main issues of energy supply that rightly concern Sen. Warner--and his leasing bill is a distraction from them.