Oil Shale Development

November 24, 2008

Congress: Re-enact oil shale moratorium
 
 CRAIG THOMPSON
 Perspective
 
 In a blind rush to promote oil shale development, the Bureau of Land
 Management released rules Nov. 17 governing public-land oil shale
 operations and royalties. Not surprisingly, oil shale royalties are a
 fraction of those charged for other public-land energy resources. Paltry
 royalties sweeten the deal for public-resource speculators.
 
 
 
 The potential energy reserve in Rocky Mountain oil shale is both
 enormous and seductive. Ten million acres of sparsely populated lands in
 Utah, Colorado and Wyoming overlie the Green River Formation, remains of
 ancient lake sediments enormous in area, thickness and concentration of
 kerogen -- a solid hydrocarbon made from ancient rich aquatic plant
 life. Kerogen is carbon dioxide from our primordial atmosphere now
 locked up in rock. Oil shale boosters tell us that there may be a
 trillion or two barrels of kerogen -- perhaps 800 billion barrels of it
 recoverable. That is a Saudi-sized reserve that sings a seductive song
 to a fossil-fuel addicted country.
 
 Appropriately seduced, the BLM is in an obvious hurry. Their rules will
 take effect three days before the Bush administration leaves office.
 Their urgency was obvious when in May they denied a request by Gov. Dave
 Freudenthal and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter for additional time to review
 the 2,000-page environmental impact statement.
 
 Why the rush? After all, the reserve has been here for the last 50
 million years, and industry has been trying to figure out how to
 economically extract kerogen from oil shale for almost a century.
 Further, industry has failed to develop the oil shale on the 3,200,000
 acres of land they already have rights to develop.
 
 First, kerogen is not oil. In fact, solid kerogen has low heat content
 -- about 10 percent of crude oil. That means it has a lower heat content
 than municipal garbage, and half the heat content of prunes. Second, you
 have to melt the kerogen out of the rock and then refine it to get
 usable oil-like liquids. That requires energy -- enormous amounts of
 energy. There are two ways to accomplish this. You can mine the shale,
 crush it, heat it, and melt out the kerogen, or you can heat the oil
 shale in the ground [in-situ] and pump it to the surface. Both processes
 are fraught with problems.
 
 In spite of enormous government support, the mining/processing option
 almost drove the Exxon/Unocal Colony project into bankruptcy in the
 early 1980s at their project site near Parachute, Colo. Exxon pulled the
 plug and 2,000 workers were suddenly unemployed. The effects on Colorado
 lasted for years.
 
 Imagine two pick-up trucks filled with rocks. Heat the rocks up to twice
 the temperature of your household oven and you can get enough kerogen to
 fill one of the pickups' gas tanks. But wait: the kerogen solidifies in
 the tank. You also have 40 percent more spent shale than you had rock to
 start with. That is right, oil shale expands when retorted. It expands
 into an enormous solid waste problem -- rich in water-soluble salts and
 metals that must be isolated to prevent environmental contamination.
 
 What about the in-situ method? We have tried heating the oil shale with
 propane, steam, micro-waves and electricity. But there is a problem. Oil
 shale beds often serve as the floor for aquifers. Heat the oil shale in
 place and you heat the aquifer. That causes the groundwater to dissolve
 compounds that otherwise would never be dissolved and in some cases
 never formed -- elements like arsenic and fluoride, and compounds like
 thiocyanates and cyanides. This becomes a groundwater nightmare. Midway
 between Rock Springs and Green River, taxpayers are still paying for
 groundwater cleanup from several in-situ oil shale experiments now over
 three decades old.
 
 Oil-shale development produces huge environmental costs. One will be
 paid in units of acre-feet -- water. Turning shale into useful fuel will
 require lakes of it, in site construction, in operation and refinement,
 and in cleanup. Water is also required to produce all the electricity
 necessary to convert the kerogen into usable fuels. Water has to come
 from somewhere in this arid region. It can only come from the
 unappropriated Colorado drainage water or from existing users. The
 former source promises a fight and the latter a major war.
 
 The 2005 Rand report on oil shale development concluded that the
 Colorado River and tributaries like the Green and Yampa would be "highly
 impacted" regardless of which technology is employed. The oil shale
 debate has lacked any thorough discussion of the water impacts.
 
 Water is not the only environmental issue. Public oil shale lands
 support some of the richest wildlife populations in North America and
 are already impacted by a booming gas development industry. At the scale
 envisioned by the BLM, it would forever alter the wildlife-rich Western
 way of life.
 
 Everything about oil shale seems enormous. We need enormous amounts of
 further research before we lease development rights to speculators.
 Governors Freudenthal and Ritter, along with U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and
 Sen.-elect Mark Udall, get it. They have called for a go-slow approach.
 We need to support them and to urge them to call on Congress to re-enact
 the oil shale moratorium.
 
 How will that help achieve American energy independence? In spite of the
 enormous promise, oil shale remains a finite non-renewable resource.
 With current technology, oil shale development is too costly, and a
 desperately poor excuse for a fuel that can be highly polluting. Oil
 shale will not solve our energy problems. That solution will ultimately
 come by converting to sustainable resources. Oil shale development may
 delay a transition to renewable energy that we will have to make in the
 future in any case.
 
 Craig Thompson was an oil shale worker in the 1970s, an oil shale
 groundwater researcher in the 1980s, and is now professor of Engineering
 and Environmental Science at Western Wyoming Community College.
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