A return of Colorado’s oil shale boom?
October 3, 2009
RIFLE, Colo. – A professor from the Colorado School of Mines in Boulder thinks it is possible that oil shale production could return to the Western Slope within a couple of decades. But, stressed Jeremy Boak, head of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the school, that will not happen without considerable additional research by the oil and gas industry and others.
And he thinks the government ought to be hard at work at the same time, deciding what the impacts of such a renewed industry would be, environmentally, socially and economically.
Boak, who has been at Mines since 2006, was addressing the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board, which held its monthly meeting in Rifle on Oct. 1.
Boak explained some of the geology concerning oil shale, which in reality is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing an organic, waxy substance called “kerogen,” which once was the basis for making kerosene. The kerogen can be forced out of the rock using heat, and refined to make fuel, which has led to speculation for centuries about how to get at shale deposits buried deep in the ground.
Boak also described the ongoing research and production work by numerous companies, including Shell, Chevron, Exxon-Mobile, and others.
He said one company, Red Leaf Resources in Utah, had recently completed tests on a shale-oil extraction process that involved heating up the rock in place, underground, and piping out the kerogen. Others, including Shell, are looking into similar technologies, he said, adding that the Piceance Basin of Western Colorado is the richest deposit of oil shale on Earth and continues to be the main point of interest for researchers, governments and oil companies.
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He noted that Shell, which is one of the corporate sponsors of his institute, is working on a process involving the stripping away of the surface, followed by the drilling of numerous bore holes to be used to heat the “extraction zone” to a temperature of some 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
Other bores are drilled around the extraction zone, to be used to freeze the area around the zone to prevent the oil and other contaminants from flowing into nearby ground water.
Once the oil has been extracted, he said, the process calls for the injection of water into the bore-holes that turns to steam and scours out the area once permeated by the kerogen. That water is then to be treated and recycled, he said.
Researchers estimate that there is more than 1.5 trillion barrels of shale “oil” in the ground of the Piceance Basin, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border and stretches from Moffat County in the north to Montrose County in the south, including the western half of Garfield County.
“There’s nothing like it,” Boak said, although there are oil shale deposits spread around the globe, and some countries, such as Estonia and Brazil, have active industries that produce varying percentages of their domestic energy reserves.
Boak explained that, with known technology, researchers believe that the industry can use 90 percent of what is extracted from the Green River shale formations and the 16,000-square-mile Piceance Basin, to make diesel fuel, jet fuel and naphtha.
He said it is expected that 10 percent of what comes out will not be usable.
“There’s nothing that they foresee that requires new technology,” he said of the engineers who have been studying the issue.
“But it will be pretty disruptive of the surface,” he said of that technology, which would involve in-situ plants that would move from one zone to another, scraping topsoil and drilling holes. He said reclamation would be easily accomplished using the same topsoil that had been removed prior to the process.
Boak indicated that some of the new technological processes are said to consume relatively little water, but conceded that studies are needed to determine how much water is available for such uses, and what might be the effects of oil shale extraction on area water supplies and water quality.
In addition, he said, there are potential impacts to the general ecology of the area that must be identified, as well as the socio- economic effects on the region’s communities.
Rifle was the nexus of the most recent oil shale boom, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when a number of oil companies brought in thousands of workers to set up mines and experimental extraction processes.
The resulting economic boom brought unprecedented growth to the county, and wealth to some individuals and companies until, in 1982, the decision by Exxon Corp. to pull the plug on its oil shale experiment precipitated a region-wide bust.
The day the news broke, May 2, 1982, became known as “Black Sunday” in local lore, prompting other companies to pull out and signifying a period of rapid economic deflation from which the region did not recover for years.
The bust “precipitated a mass exodus of workers from the county, hundreds of home foreclosures and an economic depression that took a decade to remedy,” reported the Glenwood Springs Post Independent for Black Sunday’s 25th anniversary in 2007.
In response to questions from the EAB, Boak said that engineers have concluded that, using current technology, the industry should be able to produce between 3.5 and 5 barrels of “oil” for every barrel of conventional fuel used in the extraction and refining processes.
As for the “boom” effects on regional communities, Boak said he had no direct data on it, but suggested that county governments in the affected areas are the natural source for such studies.
But in general, he predicted, if a boom happens at all it will be slower than the one in the 1980s, and will come in “pulses.”
A potential “pulse” in employment, he said, is “probably five or 10 years out.
“The impacts, I think, will be more staged than they were last time,” he said.