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Tina Casey headshot

November Surprise? Obama Resets "All of the Above" Energy Policy

By Tina Casey

Over the past four years, President Obama has delivered on his all-of-the-above energy policy with a healthy dose of clean energy initiatives alongside staunch support for fossil fuels. In fact, the President's support for fossil fuels has been quite a bit more emphatic than clean energy advocates would desire. His first term saw a natural gas boom and a renewal of offshore oil leases along with new federal funding for "clean coal" technology.

However, just three days after winning re-election, there's an indication that the President is heading off in a new direction: Last Friday, the Department of the Interior proposed a steep cutback on the amount of federal land available for oil shale development. The move comes on the heels of several other initiatives that clear the way for increased clean energy production on public property, and it could set up an epic showdown with certain members of Congress when the next legislative session begins.

Putting the squeeze on fossil fuels

According to Zack Colman of thehill.com, last Friday the Department of the Interior finalized a proposal to shut oil shale development out from 1.6 million acres of federal land in several western states. The land is part of a larger area that had been previously slated for oil shale by the Bush Administration.

It's important to note that oil shale is not the same thing as shale oil. As we explained in an earlier article, oil shale refers to a type of rock that contains a significant amount of organic material called kerogen.

Basically, kerogen rock is a form of low-grade fuel. When subjected to high heat, it produces a vapor that can be cooled and then reduced to oil.

That's entirely different from shale oil. Shale oil refers to oil that can be extracted from shale formations by the drilling method called fracking or hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is also used to extract natural gas from shale formations.

There is another important difference. Putting aside environmental issues for the moment, fracking is a cost-effective technology that has proven itself in the marketplace. In contrast, oil shale processing is still in the experimental phase and there are significant operational obstacles to surmount before it's ready for prime time.

In addition to ripping up virgin landscapes, the production of oil shale involves copious amounts of water, a scarce commodity in the western U.S. these days. As matter of rational public policy for the use of federal property, oil shale faces steep competition from other new energy technologies, namely wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy.

Opening the door for clean energy

The Obama Administration's recent energy moves weren't all bad news for fossil fuels. For example, on October 25, the administration announced a continuation of last year's offshore oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, on balance, the last few weeks saw a flurry of activity in favor of alternative energy. On October 23, the administration announced an initiative that will open 96,000 acres of waters off the coast of Delaware for commercial alternative energy development.

On October 12, the administration announced that it had put the finishing touches on an environmental impact statement for utility-scale solar energy development on public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, complete with access to existing or planned transmission lines.

Just a few days earlier, on October 9, the administration announced that it had approved public lands for wind power development consisting of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming. That complex alone has the potential for up to 3,000 megawatts.

Pushing the timeline back a couple of months, in August the Departments of the Interior and Defense signed a memorandum of understanding that makes 13 million acres of public land available as potential sites for clean energy development. The land had previously been set aside for military use, including training.

Public-private renewable energy partnerships

Aside from reserving more public land for alternative energy, the first term of the Obama Administration was marked by a series of initiatives aimed at leveraging private dollars and public resources for alternative energy.

Last year, the Department of Defense launched the Energy Initiatives Task Force, to streamline the process for private companies to build utility-scale alternative energy installations on military property.

Another recent initiative is the Re-Powering America's Land program, which aims to reclaim Superfund sites, brownfields and other classified lands for wind and solar production.

In the summer of 2011, the administration also launched an initiative that marries rural economic development with a full-bore advanced biofuels program, including research and development as well as support for building refineries and growing biofuel crops. The initiative is supported by a memorandum of understanding between the Departments of Agriculture and Energy. The Navy is a partner in the effort, serving as a large-scale customer to help kickstart the commercial market for new biofuel products.

[Image Credit: C. G. P. Grey, Flickr]

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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