OIL SHALE DEVELOPMENT

LOOMING THREAT TO WESTERN WILDLANDS

GEORGE WUERTHNER

a bout th e author
George Wuerthner is the Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and has published
35 books related to wilderness, conservation, and environmental issues.

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2012). The Energy Reader is copyright © 2012 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and published in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. For other excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit energy-reality.org or contact Post Carbon Institute. Photo: Ecoflight. Oil shale development is poised to further fragment wildlife habitat across the American West.

Post Ca r bon I nst i t u t e | 613 4t h St r e et, Su i t e 208 | Sa n ta Rosa, Ca li for n i a 95404 USA

Oil shales, if they live up to proponents’ expectations and can be produced commercially, could change the economic and political fortunes Pull quote here lorem ipsum of the United States and transform the geopolitical dolor sit amet map of the world. But any large-scale effort to exploit oil shales will threaten wildlife habitat and water quality, and exacerbate climate change.

O

il shales are rock-like, hydrocarbon-bearing formations. The term is somewhat of a misnomer because oil shale does not contain any crude oil, and is not necessarily associated with actual shale rocks either. (Oil shale should not be confused with shale oil, which is crude oil found in shale formations such as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.) Like Alberta’s tar sands, oil shales, when heated and processed through a chemical process known as “pyrolysis,” can produce an oil-like substance. The liquid resulting from oil shale is not a direct substitute for conventional oil, but it can be used to produce diesel, jet fuel, and kerosene. Oil shales were created millions of years ago as organic matter accumulated in a mix of sand and mud on the bottom of inland seas. The resulting substance, known as “kerogen,” is similar to oil but without having been subjected to the same heat and pressures. In a sense, oil shale is oil in waiting. If we could add many millions of years of pressure and heat, the kerogen would be converted into conventional oil. The extraction and processing of oil shale is essentially an attempt to speed up the formation of oil by investing energy to assist the conversion—but this raises the cost of any oil produced. Although geologists and oil companies have known about oil shales for decades, the costs of extracting and processing them made them uncompetitive with conventional oil.

Oil shales are found in locations around the globe including Scotland, Germany, Estonia, Russia, China, and Brazil. Oil shale deposits also contain natural gas and natural gas liquids. Since oil shale can be burned without any additional processing, it is sometimes used like coal as a fuel for power generation. Estonia, for instance, uses oil shale for the majority of its electrical generation. The largest known deposits of oil shale are found in the Green River Formation, which sprawls across northwest Colorado, southwest Wyoming, and northeastern Utah. Some of the richest parts of the formation are found in northwest Colorado at a depth of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. These deposits contain enough hydrocarbons to theoretically produce about a million barrels of oil equivalent per acre. In comparison, the best tar sands formations in Alberta produce around 100,000 barrels of oil equivalent per acre.1 The size of “in-place” global oil shale deposits is not well known, but it’s safe to say there are trillions of barrels of oil equivalent.2 (“In-place resources” are the total amount of oil thought to be contained in the formation regardless of technical or economic recoverability. What can be extracted is always considerably less due to technical, economic, political, and other limitations.) The most recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates suggest there may be over 4 trillion barrels of in-place oil resources in the Green River Formation. USGS studies found that the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado alone had an estimated
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1.5 trillion barrels of in-place oil resources. The USGS also estimated in-place resources of 1.3 trillion barrels of oil in the Uinta Basin of Utah and 1.4 trillion barrels of oil in the Green River Basin of Wyoming.3 The Energy Information Administration estimates that about 800 billion barrels of oil are potentially recoverable from U.S. oil shales with current technologies.4 Since the United States currently consumes roughly 7 billion barrels of oil annually, some people view oil shale development as a potential panacea for meeting the nation’s future energy needs. The military, in particular, sees oil shales as a potential contributor to energy independence and national security.5 So far, however, economic viability has been elusive. In the 1970s there was a short-term rush to develop oil shale commercially. Rifle, Parachute, Rangely, and Meeker in Colorado briefly became boomtowns. But in 1982 Exxon shut down its oil shale operations, and the boom came to an end. More recently, new technologies— many pioneered in the Alberta tar sands operations— combined with higher energy prices have generated renewed interest in oil shales. That original oil shale boom produced excessive environmental impacts. Oil shale was mined like coal, the rock was crunched and the kerogen removed; then, through a water-intensive process known as hydrogenation, the resulting substance was refined into fuels. The main drawback of this process was that it produced mine tailings from which toxic materials could leach into ground and surface waters, or blow into surrounding countryside. The costs (including the mitigation of environmental hazards) made oil shales too expensive to develop. The recent rise in the price of oil has brought new attention to oil shales, and new technologies may be able to reduce the environmental impacts. One of these innovations is In-situ Conversion Process (ICP), in which the kerogen is heated in place below ground, thereby reducing the need to move rock to the surface and eliminating the piles of tailings left over after the mining and refining process. The heated kerogen is liquefied and then pumped to the surface, where it undergoes processing into various fuels.

Shell Oil Company has refined ICP further: Electric heaters are placed in the oil shale formations for two to three years, which gradually melts the kerogen so it can be pumped to the surface. At the same time a freeze wall is created as a barrier to prevent kerogen from migrating outside the extraction zone and potentially polluting surrounding aquifers. All this takes a lot of energy, and whether it is viable at commercial scales remains to be seen. Shell reports that it can get an energy return of three to four barrels of oil for the investment of one barrel of oil’s energy, a low net energy ratio compared to conventional oil production. There are also huge up-front costs in developing such unconventional hydrocarbons, with oil price volatility being the biggest obstacle to commercial development of oil shales. Since there is a long lead time between when the hydrocarbon-bearing formations are first exploited and the final production of fuels, a sudden change in oil prices could make or break commercial operations. Given the world’s demand for oil and the decline of known conventional sources of oil, it’s not difficult to imagine that there will be a price point where oil shale may be economically viable to recover at commercial scale. Much of the surface lands over the Green River oil shale formation are owned by the federal government and controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. If a new oil shale boom occurs, there will be a rush to lease these public lands, with adverse impacts on fragile desert ecosystems: new roads, expanded development, water pollution, dust pollution, and a general degradation of one of the most scenic, iconic, and wildest landscapes in the West. Despite the negative effects on wildlands and wildlife of this region, the biggest global threat from oil shale– derived fuel results when we burn those fossil fuels in our vehicles. Like tar sands, the abundance of oil shales—should they ever prove profitable to exploit— could potentially slow global efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. An oil shale boom would open Pandora’s Box. It is a box best kept closed.

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en dnotes
1 United States Energy Information Administration, “Expectations for Oil Shale Production,” 2009, http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/otheranalysis/ aeo_2009analysispapers/eosp.html. 2 World Energy Council, 2010 Survey of Energy Resources (London, 2010); Ivan Sandrea and Rafael Sandrea, “Global Oil Reserves: Recovery Factors Leave Vast Target for EOR Technologies,” Oil & Gas Journal, November 5, 2007, http:// www.ogj.com/articles/print/volume-105/ issue-41/exploration-development/global-oilreserves-1-recovery-factors-leave-vast-target-foreor-technologies.html. 3 U.S. Geological Survey, “Assessment of In-Place Oil Shale Resources of the Green River Formation, Greater Green River Basin in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah,” Fact Sheet 2011-3063, June 2011. 4 U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Expectations for Oil Shale Production,” 2009. 5 Harry R. Johnson et al., Strategic Significance of America’s Oil Shale Resource, Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, U.S. Department of Energy (March 2004), http://fossil. energy.gov/programs/reserves/npr/publications/ npr_strategic_significancev1.pdf.

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Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth
Edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner
We have reached a point of crisis with regard to energy... The essential problem is not just that we are tapping the wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful and inefficient (though we are), but that we are overpowered, and we are overpowering nature. — from the Introduction, by Richard Heinberg

ENERGY

In a large-format, image-driven narrative featuring over 150 breathtaking color photographs, ENERGY explores the impacts of the global energy economy: from oil spills and mountaintop-removal coal mining to oversized wind farms and desert-destroying solar power plants. ENERGY lifts the veil on the harsh realities of our pursuit of energy at any price, revealing the true costs, benefits, and limitations of all our energy options.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. 336 pages, 11.75” x 13.4”, 152 color photographs, 5 line illustrations. $50.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0970950086, Fall 2012.

The ENERGY Reader
Edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner What magic, or monster, lurks behind the light switch and the gas pump? Where does the seemingly limitless energy that fuels modern society come from? From oil spills, nuclear accidents, mountaintop removal coal mining, and natural gas “fracking” to wind power projects and solar power plants, every source of energy has costs. Featuring the essays found in ENERGY plus additional material, The ENERGY Reader takes an unflinching look at the systems that support our insatiable thirst for more power along with their unintended side effects.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. 384 pages, 6” x 9”, 7 b/w photographs, 5 line illustrations. $19.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0970950093, Fall 2012.

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