Oil Shale Development

Congress: Re-enact oil shale moratorium


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.