The Bureau of Land Management releases draft guidelines for the extraction of oil from shale on public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. (Post file)

WASHINGTON — With six months left in office, the Bush administration moved Tuesday to accelerate oil-shale development across the Rocky Mountain West.

Shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming could provide 800 billion barrels of oil, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said, enough to meet U.S. demand at current levels “for 110 years.”

“We need to be doing more to develop our own energy here at home,” Kempthorne said. “Public lands have a significant role to play in meeting our domestic energy needs.”

Tuesday’s release of draft rules for shale exploration by the Bureau of Land Management was the latest shot in the growing battle of politicians pointing fingers over $4-per-gallon gas and oil as high as $147 per barrel.

Oil shale, along with drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is part of the solution, Republicans say.

Democrats counter that none of those actions would lower energy costs in the short term and that more must be done to develop alternative energy. In the case of shale, some argue, too many uncertainties exist to move forward aggressively.

“The administration is trying to set the stage for a last-minute fire sale of commercial oil-shale leases in western Colorado, despite the fact that we are still years away from knowing if the technologies for developing oil shale on a commercial scale are even viable,” said Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar.

In a conference call with reporters, Kempthorne said it would be 2015 before shale development produced oil. Even so, he said, that could affect gas prices by signaling to the futures market that the U.S. is ramping up domestic production.

For now, the Interior Department is limited in what it can do. Language inserted in a spending bill by Salazar bars the department from issuing final rules on oil-shale development. That moratorium expires Oct. 1. Kempthorne and Republicans want to prevent Salazar from extending that through 2009.

Kempthorne said he plans to move swiftly if given an opening.

Issuing the preliminary regulations started the clock on the final regulations, which could be published in about two months if the moratorium dies.

Environmental groups that oppose oil-shale development said the 235- page BLM document with preliminary rules is unnecessary. In it, the BLM states that “currently, there is no oil-shale industry and the oil-shale extractive technology is still in its rudimentary stages.”

“The only benefit that could come from this would be for those seeking partisan political gain in trying to give the impression that … this oil-shale industry has a role to play in impacting high energy prices,” said Chase Huntley, policy adviser with the Wilderness Society.

The BLM document provides many possibilities for potential regulations, asking people to comment, for example, on what royalty payments those extracting oil should have to pay.

It also includes information about the potential effect on Colorado, saying at one point “it is likely that additional agricultural water rights could be acquired,” meaning water would be taken from farming uses.

Current shale development is in a research stage. Shell Exploration & Production Co. is working an oil-shale project on three 160-acre parcels in Colorado. Shell agreed with the administration that producers need final leasing regulations so that the “rules of the game” are clear.

But Tracy Boyd, a Shell spokesman, described that timeline as less urgent than did the administration.

The company is two years into its 10-year research-and-development leases. Shell will make a decision on commercial leasing closer to the end of that decade, Boyd said.

“Another year probably isn’t the end of the world,” Boyd said about regulations.

Shell gave a timeline for producing commercial quantities of oil that is far longer than the one suggested by Kempthorne. The company won’t be ready for commercial leasing until probably 2015, Boyd said. Extraction of commercial quantities of oil, he said, will be almost a decade after that.

Salazar spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley would not say how Salazar would extend the congressional moratorium on regulations. Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Loveland opposes the ban and said Salazar lacks the votes to keep it in place.

But the moratorium may stay put through a parliamentary move unrelated to oil shale. Congress by the end of September is likely to pass most of its spending bills in one package. That could mean everything in current spending bills is rolled into next year.

Denver Post staff writer Michael Riley contributed to this report.

Anne C. Mulkern: 202-662-8907 or [email protected]