May 15, 2006
Oil Shale—Now’s the Time to Ratchet This Thing Up
By Michael D. Shaw
Of all the alternative modes of energy out there, none remains more attractive than oil shale, a term given to sedimentary rocks containing a high proportion of an organic material called kerogen, that can be converted to synthetic oil or gas via certain processes. To be geologically rigorous, the term is somewhat misleading in that it the rocks referred to do not actually contain oil, nor are they commonly shale. But, “oil shale” is what everyone calls it, no doubt focusing on its great promise.
It has been noted that if all this kerogen could be converted to oil, the quantities produced would dwarf all known conventional oil reserves. Moreover, although oil shale is dispersed worldwide, by far, the greatest proven reserves are right here in the United States. Yes, we Americans are sitting on 62% of the proven reserves!
Two principal methods exist to process the shale: Mining and in-situ
With mining, the oil shale is extracted either via traditional underground methods or strip-mined. The material is then transported to a processing facility, where it is heated to about 450°C (842°F), and enriched with hydrogen. The resulting oil is then separated from the waste material. With in-situ processing, the shale is fractured (broken into its various components) and heated underground to release gases and oils.
So, you might ask, why aren’t we pulling out all the stops to develop oil shale?
First of all, both methods of processing are not exactly light on resource utilization: Large amounts of water are used, and in the mining method, at least 40% of the energy value is consumed in production. As luck would have it, our largest deposit of oil shale—the Green River Shale deposits in western Colorado—is situated in a dry part of the country. Thus, the extracted shale would have to be transported (perhaps via pipeline) to a more suitable processing location.
Then, there’s the “once burned, twice shy” phenomenon. During the energy crises of the 1970’s, many investors jumped on the shale bandwagon, only to lose billions of dollars. Even then, there was talk of oil at $75 per barrel, although we only hit that landmark a few months ago. Still, most experts feel that as long as oil stays above $40 per barrel, shale can be quite profitable. Any problems with this, given the enhanced demand from China and India?
But, one more component must be added into the true cost, and this is not always brought out in friendly discussions: We have seen only too clearly what happens when we must kowtow to the mostly dictatorial and corrupt regimes that comprise OPEC.
While less concrete and more difficult to count up, no one can deny that there are costs here, as well.
We need more innovative methods such as the one being touted (gently) by Shell Oil, that uses electrical power to heat the kerogen over a period of approximately four years, slowly converting it into oils and gases, which are then pumped to the surface. This greatly reduces the footprint of extraction operations—to no more than a conventional oil well.
If we could put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to make oil shale work.