A Return To Colorado Oil Shale?

Some of our readers may recall the Rifle Colorado-area oil shale extraction projects of the 1970's (map of area pictured). Reduced oil prices following the OPEC boycott, impacts of saline water discharges, and high operating costs resulted in a virtual shut down by 1982.

Rule #1 with US oil businesses and the Defense Department: The US Can Never Have Enough.

Even with Alberta's tar sand-extracted oil gushing southward via pipeline, making Texification of the US' Upper Midwest a predetermined outcome, it looks as if that notion of cooking the greasy rocks will once again audition Colorado as "The Saudi Arabia Of North America" - although we thought that billing was taken by Alberta?

"The potential of America's oil shale resources to meet future U.S. demand for fuel is significant," said BLM Director Jim Caswell. "Oil shale deposits on public lands hold the equivalent of 1.23 trillion barrels of oil. The lands we are proposing to make available are estimated to hold, at a minimum, the equivalent of 61 billion barrels. At the low end of the range, that would yield enough gasoline to keep American tanks filled for 18 years."

Most U.S. oil shale resources are found in the Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah
and Wyoming. The federally owned portion of this resource is more than 50 times the
country's proven conventional oil reserves and nearly five times the proven reserves of
Saudi Arabia.
Five things have changed since the 1970's which make Oil Shale extraction prospects far different:

1.) Natural gas has become expensive. The US has passed its peak for natural gas, having used up the easily extracted reserves by the end of the 1990's. LNG or Alberta Natural Gas will have competing uses, for home heating and Tar Sands extraction, respectively. For these and other reasons described below, electricity has increased appeal as the oil shale extraction tool of choice in the US;

2.) Extended drought in the US West has made the water needed to make tar sands extraction work a very much more dear and expensive resource. Western Colorado, in particular, is still experiencing severe drought. The Colorado River which passes near the area is a vital and often fought over water resource;

3.) Development has spread toward the largest oil shale reserves. Neighbors may not appreciate the "smell of a paycheck" this time around. Plus, the need for more coal-fired or nuclear generation (see below for details) will have impacts far outside the immediate areas where oil shale projects are underway; and,

4.) Climate Change. Of course the Environmental Impact Statement just issued by the BLM offers a ridiculous factual manipulation, as cited below.

5.) Shell Oil, which has apparently stuck it out in Colorado for over 20 years, has developed and last year began testing an in-situ process that bypasses the need for open pit mining and above ground retorts, arguably protecting the groundwater with this method. This sounds similar to what's being worked on in Alberta, except Shells' Shale plan is to generate scads of electricity, use that energy to pump a chilled refrigerant around and over buried tar shale deposits - this is to freeze the groundwater enough to encapsulate a 2000-foot deep segment of shale - followed by pumping out the groundwater inside the frozen periphery and inserting giant electrodes into the isolated shale body to heat the now-dried interior to 700 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of three years, before extracting the oil liberated by the interior heat. We don't claim to fully understand this Shell game, but you can read more about it in the Colorado Springs Business Journal, Oil shale exploration: bonanza or bust?.

The study, the Bureau of Land Management's Oil Shale and Tar Sands Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, says "so-called" greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, but oil shale development's emissions are likely to comprise only a small portion of the planet's pollution causing climate change.

The impact statement, released Dec. 20, is an overview of possible impacts to full-scale oil shale development on nearly 2 million acres in the three states. BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney called the extent of the impacts discussed in the study "worst-case scenarios."

Via::Bureau of Land Management Press Release, and, the GJ SEntinel, "Feds: Oil shale's role 'minimal' in climate change"

Image credit:: US BLM Environental Impact Statement, Location of the Green River Formation Oil Shale and Its Main Basins

Tags: Colorado | Utah