Some notes on Oil Shale

July 9, 2012

Due to some generous linking to last week’s comparative energy chart (special thanks to Instapundit, Small Dead Animals, Ace of Spades and Transterrestrial Musings in particular, but several others as well), I set records for most site visits, most single post views, and most comments. I can tell from the comments both here and at other sites that some contextualization is needed. I have never written my views of oil shale in a single narrative post before, so rather than link to muliple old posts, I will summarize them here and also respond to many of the points made in the comments here and elsewhere.

First, you should know that there is an old saying in shale country that pithily encapsulates the issues with oil shale: “Oil shale has a tremendous future – it always has, and it always will!”

This is because while we have long known the locations of the regions rich in oil shale (also known as kerogen), we have also known how difficult it is to actually wring the oil out of the rocks. This is not the same oil as found in the Bakken formation in North Dakota or the Eagle Ford play in Texas, which can be released using similar hydrofracturing techniques used to release tight natural gas formations. Rather, kerogen has to be heated to release the oil. This requires the expenditure of energy in order to release energy, and it has proven to be a difficult trick to do this economically. Additionally, production tends to use a lot of water – as much as 4 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. These engineering problems have proven insurmountable at scale, so that the oil shale bonanza has forever remained just out of reach. However, it is my belief that we are nearing a solution to the engineering problem – I am particularly interested in Red Leaf Resources EcoShale process, which recently hit a snag but which will begin demonstration soon, hopefully with in the year.

Regarding some of the angrier comments, it is important to know that none of Barack Obama, the US government, nor the environmental movement currently are halting the extraction of the oil shale  resource. That impediment at the moment – and throughout history – is purely economic. Nobody has to impede the process because the process is not feasible at scale at the moment. Now, that is not to say that the various figures listed above would not throw up additional roadblocks if something like EcoShale proves workable  (their responses to Alberta’s oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline indicate that they most certainly will). But one of the most interesting things about EcoShale is that it solves the water problem – no water is used in processing the oil (although water will of course be necessary for the living and sanitation needs of workers at the various facilities). Red Leaf voluntarily put its demonstration process on hold in order to make further assurances that there would be no groundwater pollution from their site – the correct move, I believe, because it forestalls other, later protests if successful. If we get the engineering right, then the politics will follow. But we have to get the engineering right first, or nothing else matters.


One comment

  1. Oil shale and kerogen are not equivalent. Oil shale, in common with all petroleum source rocks, including the Bakken, Eagle Ford, Marcellus and all the other shaley formations now being produced. Kerogen is a solid organic matter that is insoluble in traditional petroleum solvents. Even the partially or fully generated organic matter in oil-bearing shale and gas shale is still called kerogen, as is the terrestrial organic matter in coal. There is very little oil in oil shale. Some say this makes the name a misnomer, but if so, then the phrase wine grapes is also a misnomer.

    The water use estimates you cite are higher than industry estimates of less than three barrels per barrel, and should be put in perspective. It takes 4-8 barrels of water to produce a 2-liter bottle of sweetened cola, and any biofuel whose crops receive any watering require 5-100 barrels of water per barrel of product. A very large industry in oil shale could be built with only the water rights already in the hands of several companies.

    It is not true that shale oil production is infeasible at present. Enefit is planning to build a duplicate of the new system they are just commissioning in Estonia at a site where production has continued since the 1920s. The latest estimate of the cost required to provide reasonable economic return give a range of $38-62/barrel. These numbers might increase with increasing oil price (as rig costs and other services tend to increase), but indicate that economics is not the current driver. It is a complex mix of political, legal, regulatory, financial and technical issues that has resulted in a rate of development that is neither a crash program, nor a complete standstill. There are good reasons to point to Administration actions, as well as to the inherent caution of an industry that seen its technology oversold before by financiers and politicians, as responsible for the current pace of development.

    Jeremy Boak, Director
    Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
    Colorado School of Mines
    Viewpoints are mine, not positions of the Colorado School of Mines

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