Geologic Column:

Energy is in the news (again) and with our governments bias against carbon based fuels, the “official line” push is toward “renewable” sources of energy such as solar and wind (which are very expensive and make up only 1 percent of our total energy and only 5 or so percent in the countries with the highest usage). Personally, I have built and am currently using a large solar array, I can tell you that the average guy isn’t going to put 20 or 30 solar panels on his roof and they will never pay for themselves.  In the mean time it looks like we are stuck dealing with conventional petroleum/gas and coal production but there is room and a good possibility that other sources of black gold may creep into position as a significant source of energy.

One of those potential avenues is the one toward the development of Oil Shale.

The definition of oil shale is any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis.  (In english, heat the rock and oil comes out.)  Good oil shale will burn by itself and is known as the “rock that burns”.  Oil Shales were deposited in a wide range of sedimentary environments including freshwater and saline ponds, lakes, coastal swamps and coal forming environments.  Algae was a significant contributor to the organic kerogen content though land plant detritus/debris also contribute a percentage to the resource.

We are the Saudi Arabia of Oil Shale.  Western Colorado has huge oil shale resources.  The Green River Formations is estimated to have between 1.2 and 1.8 trillion barrels of oil.  (3 time Saudis claimed reserves if there is only a conservative 800 million barrels in the formation).  Historically, uses of oil shale are traced back to ancient times.  By the seventeenth century, the Swedish “alum” shale was roasted over a wood fire and potassium aluminum sulfate was extracted for uses in tanning leather and fixing colors in fabrics.  By the 1800’s the “alum” shale was being retorted for hydrocarbons for a petroleum source which continued till world war II.  Other projects around the world have been moderately successful though long term viability has not been the rule.  Common products made from oil shale in these early operations were kerosene, lamp oil, paraffin, fuel oil, and lubricating oil/grease. Overall though, oil shales have resisted exploitation as a result of cost (tenor),  issues such as availability of water and other production problems have stopped many projects.   Back in 1982, a serious attempt to produce oil from shale at the Colony Oil Shale Project near Parachute Colorado were shut down resulting in 2000 residents becoming unemployed overnight. Inactivity since then has been the standard but in 2005, congress put oil shale back on the fast track.  Some major companies have been given rights to work on BLM land for possible exploitation of these huge resources.

Those technical issues I pointed out earlier are many but a big one is that oil shale requires a large amount of energy to heat up the rock to around 900 degrees to release the oil.  At least 40 percent of the energy in the shale must be used to release the other 60 percent.  Additionally, the shale must be mined, transported, retorted and then disposed of, the efficiency of the process is significantly reduced.  The cost of a 1200 megawatt power plant using oil shale would be around 3 billion dollars and would produce enough energy to serve a city of one half million.  It of course would emit tons of CO2 (which might help us get through this global warming winter we are enjoying) and other air pollutants.  To produce one million barrels of shale oil a day (we use 20 million barrels of oil a day in America), would require 10 new power plants and 5 new shale mines to serve them.

The water issue is also a big one.  Local communities to support the mines and power plants would necessarily grow requiring significant water use let alone the huge amount of water used in oil shale extraction.  Water by itself is a major constraint for the development of oil shale resources.  It will take several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced though some of that water may be recycled.

The solution to the energy problem is not any one avenue of approach.  It is a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary method that utilized any and all resources we have at our disposal.  Solar, wind, nuclear, tidal, hydro, conventional hydrocarbon, oil shale, tar sands, wood stoves and even proper home design (conservation) all will contribute to our energy menu in the years to come but only if the government gets over it’s political skewed biases based on bad science and starts making cheap energy possible again.  “Drill Baby Drill” sure as heck makes sense to me.  Having said that, reliance on any one of these sources will surely be a fools game.  Investing in one basket is not the best approach to managing ones energy portfolio.

Frank Bliss
Weston, Wyoming