After a brief departure from our discussion of unconventional oil, welcome back. It’s February 29th, it’s pouring rain here in D.C., and because I’m already grumpy, I’m going to talk about something which makes me even more grumpy, which is unconventional oil. Today’s feature: oil shale.
What is oil shale? Oil shale refers specifically to a fine-grained, sedimentary rock containing sufficient kerogen to produce burnable hydrocarbons. What the heck is kerogen? It’s just a fancy term for the carbon-based organic matter that makes up a portion of sedimentary rocks – something we only care about because, when heated to a high enough temperature, causes liquid oil to separate from a combustible gas. Author’s note: oil shale is different from shale oil, and is also different from oil sands and tight oil.
Why is oil shale a big deal? Every time gas prices go up, people start complaining, and Newt Gingrich starts making things up about how it’s Obama’s fault that gas costs a single penny over $2.50 per gallon. When this happens, or when Iran starts making noises that we don’t like, politicians begin to talk about domestic energy. Oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are all too eager at that moment to talk about how areas of the American west – Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in particular – have vast quantities of oil shale that could be exploited as a domestic source of energy. Which they certainly could.
Why is this a bad idea? As with all unconventional forms of oil, extracting oil shale is an extremely intensive process. Because the energy source is in a solid form, it must be either (1) mined, and then heated, or (2) large amounts of heat must be generated hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface for sufficient time to liquify fuel reserves so that they can then be pumped to the surface. If option 1, mining, is taken, the shale is removed in open-pit or strip mining, which looks something like this:
Of course, if you want to go with option 2, you’re going to have even bigger problems on your hands. Take the debate about hydraulic fracturing (which is used as part of the oil shale extraction process) and multiply it by ten, and that’s about what you have. Most of these in-situ extraction methods are still somewhat experimental, but they involve injecting large volumes of water as well as heat sources underground, and then drilling to pump the resulting oil to the surface. It’s very involved.
What are the environmental risks? Oh, where to begin. To enumerate a few: land use issues (from strip/surface or open pit mining), water quality issues (from mine tailing disposed of in rivers, lakes, streams, and critical headwaters), water use issues (it can take two to three million gallons of water per well to perform hydraulic fracturing), greenhouse gas emissions (both during extraction and during the use of this energy source, which when burned releases more greenhouse gasses than conventional petroleum), increased erosion and soil quality problems, air quality concerns resulting from the release of mercury, sulfur, and particulates, acid mine drainage….
I’ll stop there.
What does this have to do with gas prices? I can’t resist hitting on this point, because it’s just too good to leave alone. There is a perception in America that the price of gas at the pump – and the price of oil per barrel – is related directly to supply and demand. If we produce more domestic oil of any sort, we think that the prices will go down. We also like to think that Europeans pay more for gas because they don’t have any of their own.
Not so. As CNNMoney (note that this is a mainstream news source, not EcoLooney Weekly) reports, in virtually every country – even OPEC nations – gas prices are determined by whether or not the government (1) taxes, or (2) subsidizes oil. Energy subsidies mean that the government is floating part of the bill, keeping prices artificially low for consumers when compared to actual value of the commodity. The U.S. government floats between $4 billion and $10 billion a year towards production of established fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.
So, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that right now, we’re looking at a technology that is still highly experimental (the methods of extracting oil shales are still in the experimental phase in nearly every major oil company.) While they’ve got some big dollars behind them from the oil giants, they’ve also got some big hurdles to clear. The areas of the arid west where oil shale is abundant already face ongoing issues with water scarcity in the face of growing population and growing demand. In Estonia, which is the largest user of oil shale, 91% of the country’s water resources go to extraction of oil shales. That’s a big yikes, and that’s not even looking at the impacts regarding climate change, air quality, and land use. And no, it won’t make the price that you pay at the pump go down.
Oil shales are a tempting prospect because of their abundance, but one that is likely not worth the risk. If we’re going to develop a new technology, let’s make it both clean and renewable.