Conservation groups say the leases conflict with renewable energy goals
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — While the best available science suggests that there is very little — if any — net energy gain from oil shale development, several companies are apparently still interested in trying to wring a few drops of oil from the crumbly rock in Western Colorado and Utah.
The Bureau of Land Management announced this week it is issuing a second round of research leases to three companies, Exxon-Mobil, Natural Soda, and Aura Source, to test and develop oil shale production technologies on federal lands.
Conservation groups oppose this second round of leases because the energy and water intensive processes and resultant high carbon dioxide emissions run counter to the best interests of western states and the nation.
At stake with oil shale development are air and water quality, and water availability in an arid region. The BLM’s decision to continue pursuing oil shale development also calls into question the Obama Administration’s commitment to reducing the amount of our nation’s climate changing carbon emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The group did not mince words in criticizing the federal decision to move ahead with the leases.
“Oil shale is nothing more than a dirty, expensive pipedream,” said Bobby McEnaney, a lands advocate with the NRDC. “This administration is making smart decisions by investing in clean energy that will create jobs and reduce our dependence on oil. Oil shale undermines that effort.” McEnaney said.
“Water is the lifeblood of the West,” said Bill Midcap, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union. No water, no life. We should not risk our water, our food security and our regional economic stability for a promise that has not been fulfilled for over 100 years. It is time to move on to more viable forms of energy development, like wind and solar,” he added.
“People have been trying to figure out how to suck the hydrocarbons out of these rocks for over a century, said Craig Thompson, a former oil shale worker, now a professor of engineering at Western Wyoming Community College. No one has found an economic solution. When Exxon pulled the plug on their five billion dollar gamble and laid off 2200 workers, the West learned a bitter lesson. The last thing we need is another pipe dream and another economic “bust.”
Several federal and independent studies have shown that oil shale development would consume huge quantities of water, require vast amounts of electricity and foul the air with greenhouse gases. Water is perhaps the single biggest issue, as documented in a report from Western Resource Advocates.
“Washington insiders making decisions about leasing don’t recognize the impacts on the region and its people, said Karin P. Sheldon, President of Western Resource Advocates.
“Impacts to the West’s communities and economy would be terrible and long-lasting. Oil shale development would diminish already limited water supplies, harm wildlife, and increase the threat of climate change.”
Progress on the four existing research, development and demonstrationleases issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 to Shell Oil, Chevron, AMSO, and OSEC has stalled. The new leases are for 160 acres, with the opportunity to secure an additional 480 acres should the companies produce commercial quantities.
“The current federal oil shale research lease program is in its infancy with ground barely being broken on the initial six research leases, and there is no compelling case that federal lands are now necessary to support additional research,” said Elise Jones, Colorado Environmental Coalition. “Despite over 100 years of attempts to develop oil shale, not one barrel of oil has been commercially produced. But Colorado communities have been devastated by the economic busts that accompany these attempts,” said Jones.
Some of the most recent research shows that, with existing technologies, fuel derived from shale has one of the lowest returns of any fuel source, falling between 1:1 and 2:1 when internal energy is counted as a cost.
Additionally, a Stanford University study found the large energy inputs that must go into oil shale production would lead to greenhouse gases emissions 20 percent to 75 percent greeters than those from the production and refining of conventional crude oil.
The researchers cited two specific examples, including Shell Oil’s in situ process, which produces significant quantities of hydrocarbon gas. The gas is burned to generate electricity used as part of the production process.
Similarly, the ATP, an above-ground oil shale retort processor, also produces hydrocarbon gases and a solid char substance. Both the gases and char are burned to help power production. Not all existing studies include internal energy as part of the energy return analysis — but they should, according to Cleveland.
There is no oil in oil shale. Instead, there is kerogen, a combination of chemical compounds that can be converted through heating into synthetic petroleum in one of two primary processes:
Surface retorting, where the shale is mined, crushed, and then heated to a high temperature to extract the kerogen.
In situ extraction, where energy is used to heat the shale while it is still underground, converting kerogen into liquid form so it can be pumped out, and refined into petroleum products.
Significant environmental impacts from oil shale production have been documented in Estonia, where the industry is well-developed. The impacts include acid drainage from the sudden exposure and subsequent oxidation of formerly buried materials, the introduction of metals into surface water and groundwater, increased erosion, sulfur-gas emissions, and air pollution caused by the production of particulates during processing, transport, and support activities. By some estimates, oil shale production accounts for 91 percent of all water used in Estonia.