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Posts Tagged ‘energy’

Snowden is missing.  The IRS scandal is ongoing. SCOTUS struck down DOMA and punted on affirmative action. A Texas filibuster over a proposed abortion bill was picked up by a historic crowd at the state capitol who effectively blocked the legislation through sheer willpower. A red panda went missing from the National Zoo. DC United won a game. It’s been a hell of a week, and it’s only Wednesday.

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I feel ya, buddy.

In the middle of it all, President Obama delivered the policy speech that environmentalists have been waiting for since the day he took office: the one on climate change. The President’s agenda outlined broad goals for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy, respond to the ongoing impacts of climate change, and finally, lead the international community in all of those areas, too. The official White House fact sheet is available here. But what about the details?

Coal, more than any other industry, took it on the chin in this one – not surprising given just how much pollution is generated by coal-fired power plants.  The plan directs EPA to move forward with regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by June 2014.  The plan also included expanded effort to fund renewable energy and use public lands for renewable energy sources, efficiency initiatives, and reforestation measures.

The plan was met with mixed reactions.  Commentators were quick to judge the measures as a scaled-back version of the lofty goals that Obama set at the outset of his Presidency, and not surprisingly, many Republicans continued the drumbeat of erroneously pitting environmental initiatives against economic goals. (Side note: when will they give up, and realize the renewable energy can also create jobs? Sigh.)  Coal stocks responded by plummeting.  Many environmental groups, including Sierra Club and 350.org applauded the measures as the long-awaited concrete action to back up the President’s constant promises to tackle climate change.  Former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore called the speech “terrific and historic,” responding optimistically to the steps proposed in the President’s plan as well as his willingness to finally move forward on a longstanding issue.  The mention of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline caught many by surprise, as did the President’s comments that the pipeline will not go forward if it is found to increase GHG emissions.  That of course, is a finding that in reality is stupid – of course expanded tar sands development, and continuing to enable fossil fuel exports, will increase emissions and accelerate climate change.  But, the “official” outcome could go either way depending on how groups calculate the emissions and how directly they tie the impacts to the pipeline itself.  You know the saying- lies, damned lies, and impact assessments.  Another surprising feature was the mention of fossil fuel subsidies, which was included in the President’s international goals, but not within his steps to curb emissions in the US.  (Honestly, I don’t know why nobody listens to me on this one.  Cut fossil fuel subsidies, cut federal spending, and cut emissions by forcing people to think about how much and how often they drive and make better choices. Oh well.)

Overall, while the actions were not as bold as some groups hoped, the result of the speech was a net positive – an acknowledgement that climate change is real, here, and happening, and a specific plan for moving forward.  Let’s hope that the follow-through is real.

A summary of the main points of the plan is available through Grist.org right here. A full transcript of the President’s speech is available here. As for Team Spinach, a detailed analysis of the plan by our resident climate expert, El Nino, will follow soon.

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Hi all!

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I think everyone was busy last week worrying the NSA is judging them for not calling their grandmother more often.  I know I was.  Which is why it took me a bit to get this post up, and also why so many fascinating things happened in the energy and climate world that I had to talk about them all in one post.

First of all, our least favorite pipeline that doesn’t even exist yet is back in the news.  The Sierra Club has quietly taken the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline over to the judicial branch.  The litigious environmental nonprofit (for those of you who don’t know, Sierra Club has acted as plaintiff for some of the nation’s most pivotal and groundbreaking environmental lawsuits – it’s one of their specialties as an organization) filed suit against the State Department last week regarding the sketchy-as-all-hell (from what I’ve read) environmental impact statement that the agency issued about the pipeline.  The impact statement – which suggests the pipeline will have no negative impacts – was prepared by a third-party contractor that has an active membership in the American Petroleum Institute, which Sierra Club and other environmental groups widely regard as evidence of a conflict of interest.  Perhaps more critically, the State Department did not respond to requests to produce documentation proving that the department screened for such a conflict of interest.  The lawsuit is seeking access to those documents and extension of the public comment period for the agency to finalize the determination so that the documents can be considered.  In the continued debate, Al Gore weighted in on the pipeline in a recent interview, stating that the project was ‘an atrocity.’  

Meanwhile, climate change is happening, you guys.  A five year study by FEMA that was just released has predicted a 45% increase in flooding in the United States during the coming decades – as a result of climate change.  (Except in North Carolina, of course, where flooding and climate change is illegal.  I suppose all the hurricanes will have to stick to Florida and South Carolina this year?) FEMA, which manages disaster relief, is expecting to have to insure 80% more properties, with a 90% increase in the average cost of a claim when filed.  But, this is all totally worth it, because it was definitely too expensive for us to regulate carbon through a cap-and-trade or tax system, and it was also definitely too expensive to make some of those fossil fuel companies maybe pay a little instead of collecting government subsidies.  What? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Fine. I’ll end on a good note.  Behold, Robert Redford for NRDC:

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Still better looking than you.

Redford, an environmental activist and partner to National Resources Defense Council, has put together a series of short ads calling for action on climate change and clean energy initiatives.  You should watch them.  Because it’s Robert Redford.  And, he’s got something really important to say.  And then you should send them to everyone you know.

That’s all for now folks.  I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll be less cranky.

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We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:

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I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

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I’ve bitten off a lot of salad here with tackling the issue of fracking in my first crunchie.  First of all, what is a crunchie, you say?  Well, it’s a bite-sized bit to go with your spinach: a short, hopefully fairly neutral summary of an issue, program, law, problem, or question.  A while back, we were discussing the fact that some of the issues we talk about here are old hat to those of us who work in the environmental field – but might be unfamiliar to many of our readers.  Crunchies are our aim to remedy that: the quick-and-dirty summary that will (hopefully) help you interpret what you read here, or elsewhere, with a bit of context.

So – on to fracking. First, why the topic? In light of TheGreenLight’s review on Promised Land, I thought it was appropriate.  Second, a nice picture:

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WHAT IT IS: Fracking – formally known as “hydraulic fracturing”

How it works: After drilling, a pressurized fluid is injected into a well in order to create small fractures that will allow fluids or natural gasses to flow through the well more easily and enable extraction.

This BBC Video explains (and illustrates) the basics of the process, and it’s only 15 seconds long. (So, very basic, but still)

Who’s In Charge?  Right now, nobody, really.  That’s part of the issue.  The EPA has some authority and has a few long-term study in process about the effects of fracking on groundwater – which they do have jurisdiction over under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  However, it’s currently regulated on a state-by-state basis, and not at the federal level.

What’s the current issue?  Natural gas exploration has been booming, especially in the eastern United States.  However, there are serious concerns about the safety of the fracking process and the potential for contamination of both ground and surface waters.  The chemicals in fracking fluid are currently undisclosed and unregulated, in many cases because oil and gas companies claim them as trade secrets, which has raised eyebrows among many consumers and advocacy groups (that’s putting it lightly).

One Side of the Story:  Natural gas is a cleaner fuels source than other types of fossil fuels, with lower emissions in greenhouse gases and other particulates.  It’s also something we have abundantly here in the U.S., which has allowed us to greatly reduce imported fuel – and, given the unrest in the middle east – having a readily available and reliable source of domestic energy is a huge deal.  Natural gas has also been a huge boost economically for areas of the U.S. that were severely impacted by the recession, bringing jobs and big money to those whose land is leased out for gas.

The Other Side of the Story: Fracking isn’t a clean or precise process.  It takes 2- 4 million gallons of water to frack a single well, once, and some wells have to be fracked three or four times.  Often, this water is taken from potable, treated water sources – which means it’s not going to people who need drinking water.  When the job is over, the water is pumped out and disposed of – which is another mess.  Since we don’t know what’s going into it (remember the part about fracking fluids being undisclosed?) it’s pretty tricky to treat the wastewater that comes back out of the well after they’re done fracking.  Finally, the biggest debate rages over whether or not the fractures induced in the rock layers during the fracking process increase the migration of oil & gas into groundwater layers, contaminating aquifers and thus future drinking water sources.

Also, while it’s a domestic fuel source, it’s not a renewable one; it is lower emissions but not zero emissions.  So there is that.

Why you should care:  If you live anywhere in New York, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado, North or South Dakota, California, uhh….basically everywhere….fracking could be coming to a town near you.  Maybe it already is.  There is also some important legislation coming down the pipeline about whose job it is to regulate fracking and how widespread the practice should be.

What you can do:  It’s hard to find neutral information out there, because the debate is so hotly contested.  But, if you want to get involved on one side or the other – read up – and find out what is going on in your state.  There’s a lot on the line here: most votes about fracking recently have been very close, so make your voice count.

Other Sources of Information:

Natural Resources Defense Council – Fracking website

Huffington Post’s Fracking Page – All the news you could ever want, just on fracking!

A Popular Mechanics take on fracking

The Schlumberger Oilfield Services Guide to Fracking Resources

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Can you guess the source of this famous phrase?  Congrats, Family Feud.  The show has had many hosts over the years, but did you know Richard Dawson was the first and longest host of the show?  Depending on your age you know of Dawson or you caught reruns on the Game Show network (it’s not in the basic cable package); this week Dawson passed away and many will remember him as the kissing host that made housewives and contestants blush.

Dawson doing this thing.

Now that you’re caught up on the history of Family Feud, The Associated Press released survey findings this week from a AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that shows Americans are more interested in reducing their energy bills and energy use than taking a vacation. This could be a result of more families across the U.S. facing new hardships, but the realization that being energy-efficient can save people money is excellent.  The results found that nearly 9 in 10 people said they had taken some action in the last year to save energy (that’s music to my ears).  Smaller steps, such as turning off the lights, turning down the heat, installing more energy-saving appliances and driving less, were the more common ways respondents said they chose to reduce energy in the last year.  Small steps can have huge savings.  My own sister simply unplugged all the electronics when they were not in use in my family’s house for one month and saved $100!  Now it’s a common habit.  Renewable energy from our land’s resources such as wind and solar are increasingly becoming more popular (stay tuned on a post for affordable solar panels), and can be a great source of energy because they won’t run out, such as natural gas or crude oil.  Small steps go a long way, especially when everyone is doing it.  Cheers.

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Today’s post is leading you to another post (read me!), a post by former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

One tough cookie, Jennifer Granholm.

A fiery force of female, Ms. Granholm makes a strong case directed at Speaker John Boehner for the continuation of the wind production tax credit set to expire at the end of this year (for a full list of credits expiring at this year’s end, see my previous post “Year of the Tax“).  She takes a direct swing at Boehner, noting that his state of Ohio “saw a whopping 900 percent growth for new installations of wind power in 2011.”  She adds that “more than 50 manufacturing companies for wind components are located [in Ohio], and the industry supports thousands of Ohio jobs.”  It’d sure be a shame to loses the 37,000 jobs the wind sector is bringing to the table, especially since Congress claims to be all about job creation and growth.

Granholm doesn’t just open up on Boehner, though; she throws some punches at the Republican party more broadly.  My favorite: she makes the stinging observation that Republicans, despite their rhetoric, have been picking energy “winners and losers.” She asks, “How is it that they can vote to extend tax credits for oil but not for wind?”

Great question, Jen.  When you get an answer, give us a holler.  We’d be curious as to the answer.

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Every now and then, here at Spinach HQ, we get a comment that is just too good to ignore.  Yesterday was one of those days, because it seems that my post on oil shale riled some people over at the Colorado School of Mines.  Hi, guys!! I had a friend who graduated from Mines who I met back when I worked for Schlumberger.  He was a nice person, so I assume you are all very nice people as well.

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That said: it seems that we have a slight difference of opinion regarding the merits of oil shale production, and it also seems that there are a few things that I should clarify from my previous post.  (I almost used ‘which’ in that sentence, but I’m pretty sure that would be grammatically incorrect.)  Normally, I try to stay fairly pedestrian in these blog posts, but when it comes to an issue that is of deep concern to me, the gloves come off.  So, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to go put on my geology hat.  And not the kicky trucker geology hat this time – the real one.

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No, really. Real Ultimate Geologists wear hats like this.

That’s better.   Like Indiana Jones, I’m now ready for anything, except snakes.  I hate snakes.  As always, the vitamins come from chewing on things, and if it gets too rough for ya, the safety word is beef.

First: let’s clarify a little bit about oil shale production technologies. 

For those of you who are not geologists or chemical engineers, some vocab to start off with.  Oil shale is a rock that contains kerogen.  In order to separate out the usable fuel, it has to undergo retorting – which can be done either by mining it and retorting at the surface (the current technology), or, as some experimental technologies are hoping – could be done in situ, that is, underground.

Retorting is the process where oil shale is heated to a temperatures of 650 – 700 degrees Fahrenheit (for above ground) and 350 degrees Fahrenheit (for in situ retorting).  At this temperature, kerogen begins to separate from the rock and undergo the process of pyrolysis, a non-reversible, anoxic thermochemical decomposition of organic matter.  Simply stated, the kerogen is converted to a vapor, which when cooled creates an oil that can be burned or further refined into a useable form.  The part of the oil shale rock which didn’t burn is left behind – and actually has an expanded volume, something which we’ll get into later.

I will be the first to admit that clearly, since I am no longer employed by an oilfield services or oil production company, I do not have access to every single model or plan that has been developed and tested for in situ extraction of oil shale.  However: I first present this image, which is a presentation of the current in situ extraction method being developed by Exxon Mobil, and it does involve hydraulic fracturing.

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So that’s at least one example.  In addition, processes discussed in National Petroleum Council publications that are being explored by Chevron also cite the use of artificial fracturing by gas injection, as well as numerous examples where both water and gas are circulated through the well during the in situ process, in technologies developed by Chevron, Shell, and other oil companies.  No, that’s not strictly hydraulic fracturing, but my point in the prior post was not to state whether or not fracking technology is specifically used in these processes.

My point was (and is) that two of the primary concerns that people raise when they discuss hydraulic fracturing – high water use and groundwater contamination – are also two of the primary concerns for oil shale.  This is true regardless of whether it is mined or retorted in situ.  Disturbances underground always carry the risk for contaminating groundwater, and fracturing rock beds changes patterns in aquifers and alters the hydraulic conductivity of rocks whether it’s done with water, gas, or vegetable oil.

Let’s talk about water use first: whether mined or retorted in situ, oil shale production takes a lot of water.  This is used during all phases of production.  The post-production phase is just one example of this; Shell cites that at minimum 20 pre volumes of water must be circulated numerous times throughout the entire well area before groundwater returns to an acceptable quality, a process that Shell states will take UP TO FIVE YEARS after the well has concluded production.  Considering that most leases proposed for oil shale are 20 year leases, that means 25 years during which ground water in a particular area would be unusable.

And let’s get into the water use overall: According to EarthTalk, a Scientific American publication (a name I believe is considered a reputable magazine) current technologies (so, the mining kind, not the in situ one that I was talking about a minute ago) are equally water-intensive.

“Another big issue with oil shale extraction is water usage. The process requires as much as five barrels of water—for dust control, cooling and other purposes—for every barrel of shale oil produced.”

If you want another source, you don’t have to look any further than the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior.  As NRDC reports, the BLM study found that

 “mining and distilling oil shale would require an estimated 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced—inputs that could reduce the annual flow of Colorado’s White River by as much as 8.2 percent. Residues that remain from an in-situ extraction process could also threaten water tables in the Green River Basin, the agency says.”

BLM’s Argonne National Laboratory reports that the ratio is 2:1 for barrels of water consumed per barrels of oil produced.  That’s not pretty for an area in the arid west, where the Colorado River already does not reach the sea and states routinely fight over water sources.

But if you want an even more neutral take on things, here’s the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on oil shale, which while it makes no recommendations does suggest that water resources in the west do not exist to support the industry on a large scale.

And we’re just getting into consumption.  The other problem that results is the water quality, which I’ll talk about next.

Anytime you’re doing something underground, you run the risk of encountering one of those pesky things called aquifers – groundwater resources which are most commonly used as a source of drinking water.  The problem with these is that underground disturbances can change the pattern of groundwater flow; in fact, water is the major vector (mechanism of transport) for the majority of oil shale pollutants.  If you’re mining, the only way to handle this is to pump groundwater out until the water table is lowered below the level at which oil shale is being extracted.

If you’re working with in-situ technology, you have even bigger problems: when you’re producing liquid oil from heating, you need something to prevent that from flowing into the groundwater.  Currently, the Shell technology uses freeze walls to prevent water from the well from mixing with water from aquifers.  The problem is that the well technology changes the basic properties of the shale, altering the hydraulic conductivity – that is, how water flows through the material.  Once production is finished, and the walls are removed, toxic material from the mine leeches into groundwater.  Both the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation as well as RAND corporation have named the leaching of toxic heavy metals and salts into groundwater as a major risk to water quality from oil shale production.

Now, let’s get into the issue of mining.

It is true that the surface or open pit mines are not the only way to extract oil shale – however, they are absolutely the most popular and also the cheapest and easiest way to do it – which in my experience is what most oil (and mining) companies like to select.

But let’s pretend for a moment that you’re mining these things underground, resulting in the lowest possible use of land on the surface.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t reduce in any way the water quality or waste issues that result from mining.  There are many of these, including the disturbances at the surface which displace flora and fauna and disrupt ecosystems that can take decades to redevelop. Underground mining can result in subsidence of the area after it has been abandoned and also to problems from waste left behind.

Meanwhile, when oil shale is retorted, the kerogen is separated from the rock.  That’s great, except that it leaves behind spent oil shale and combustion ashes.  No biggie, just some old rocks, right?  We’ll just toss these over here in this landfill.

Totally an option, but I’m not sure that anybody wants that landfill anywhere near them.  Spent oil shale and combustion ashes are known to contain sulfates, heavy metals (including lead and mercury), toxic organic compounds (some of which are prone to combustion themselves), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are known to be toxic and carcinogenic.  In Estonia, which gets the majority of their energy from oil shale, they’re struggling to deal with 360 – 370 million tons of toxic solid waste byproducts from the production of oil shale energy.

But the environmental regulations take care of that, and even if they fail any issues can be effectively mitigated. Right?

The Wilderness Society, citing data from the RAND Corporation study as well as data collected by the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation, summarizes these water quality issues:

 “Shale extraction through in situ development risks leaching of toxic by-products such as mineral salts and trace metals into the surrounding groundwater.Extracting the shale also leaches salt into an area where salinity is already a problem. High salt concentrations in groundwater restrict water to plants, which is particularly harmful to agriculture. In the Colorado River Basin, where most oil shale development will occur, damages from salinity are already between $500 to $750 million per year.”

That’s a pretty hefty bill right there, and I’d bet that it’s the taxpayers who are paying it – and not the companies that are mining there.  And while we’re at it, let’s just talk for a moment about how well “mitigation” has worked in the past.

While we’re on the subject of mining, environmental regulations, and mitigation – and how well these things are currently managed: the mining industry is one of the most poorly regulated and managed industries in the country, and the bottom line is that it’s starting to cost taxpayers.  The Bush Administration removed all federal regulations protecting surface and groundwater during mining operations, and the current status of how effectively the industry has “mitigated” its footprint reveals a dismal track record.

There are upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines of all flavors across the country.  To even attempt to mitigate these would cost upwards of $35 billion, according to US EPA.  There are hundreds of mines that are placed on the priority list ever year to become part of the national Superfund program for cleanup efforts, and resources certainly cannot begin to cover the actions necessary to restore these lands.  Additionally, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming – three of which would be the major players in an oil shale push – allow a “corporate guarantee” in the form of a promise or word-of-mouth arrangement that adequate funds will be used to clean up mining sites.  Mining operations are estimated to have contaminated 40% of headwaters in the American west. While many of these operations are goal, silver, and copper mines, to think that current regulations prevent environmental impacts is ignorant of the realities and long-term impacts that changes in land use, water use, and waste disposal can have on natural resources and ecosystems.

What about the greenhouse gases and air quality? 

But back to oil shale.  There seems to be some confusion about the greenhouse gas emissions from oil shale, so first of all, let’s get some numbers on the page.

Citing Scientific American, “Researchers have found that a gallon of shale oil can emit as much as 50 percent more carbon dioxide than a gallon of conventional oil would over its given lifecycle from extraction to tailpipe.”  If you want another figure, the Rand Corporation, found that producing 100,000 barrels of oil shale per day would emit approximately 10 million tons of GHGs.

Additionally, when I stated that burning oil shale released more greenhouse gases than traditional petroleum, I wasn’t talking about carbon (which, by the way, is not a greenhouse gas – it’s just an element on the periodic table).  Although “carbon” has become a colloquial way to refer to greenhouse gases – a kind of nickname stemming from expressions like “carbon footprint”  – it isn’t the only one.  The IPCC actually lists over 15 gases on their registry of those which impact the greenhouse effect, aka those which impact radiative forcing.  And those are only the long-lived ones.  The most well-known of these are carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), and not all of them have the same impact on the atmosphere – that is, one ton of carbon dioxide does not produce the same effect as one ton of methane. One of the major concerns with oil shale is that depending on the specific composition of the rock, it can have much greater methane content and emissions both during extraction, retort, and combustion, than conventional petroleum.

Sadly, the air quality issues aren’t limited to that.  Retorting and distilling oil shale releases sulfur dioxide, lead, and nitrogen oxides.  According to the BLM impact statement, just the existing “experimental” or trial phase extractions  reduce visibility by at least 10% for several weeks out of the year – and that’s nothing compared to what would happen if oil shale was being mass-produced at the kind of capacity that would make it market viable.  According to the Department of Energy, oil shale retorting, distillation, and combustion of the resulting fuel has also been linked to significant mercury emissions.

Oh, and in case you were curious, the State of California is pretty upset about this, too.  They actually filed comments against BLM because they did not think that the impact of the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change was given enough weight in the impact study.  You can see what the Attorney General of had to say about it here.

But we can develop the technology and make it efficient?

By the way, did we mention that the RAND corporation analysis also stated that producing 100,000 barrels of shale oil would require 1,200 megawatts of power?  That’s quite a bit – it’s actually the equivalent of a new power plant capable of serving a city of 500,000 people.

Last – but absolutely not least – I did take a gander at the Oil Shale Symposia website.  It seems that there are some prestigious groups involved, including the USGS and several universities.

However, it seems that this particular symposium states that its research is divided into two categories: Geomechanics and Integrated Geologic Framework.  All of this sounds very interesting, but where’s the research on the long term impacts?  Is it buried with the geochemistry?  Is it hiding in the paleo-climateology section?  I sincerely hope it is, because it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on .

I also noticed something interesting at the bottom, though, which I can’t resist bringing up: the logos for Shell, Exxon, and Total listed as partners and sponsors of the program.  I can’t necessarily call bias from this immediately, but let’s just say that when it comes to oil companies sponsoring “research,” it’s not hard to smell a rat in the room.  While it could be that oil shale production is the exception to the rule, these corporations have been notoriously poor at fully researching and disclosing the true impacts of their actions in the past.  On top of that, if we learned anything at all from Deepwater Horizon, it’s not to trust an oil company when they say they have effective mitigation technology – kind of like how you never trust a Sicilian when death is on the line.

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But you can ask them about oil shale and see what they think.

I’d actually be interested to see how much of this funding is going to truly evaluating the long-term impacts – and developing technologies to manage them – and how much is simply focused on making the technology efficient enough to head to market.  Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised.

But Maybe You Missed My Point: See, the overall point of me writing this whole shpeal is the following: I’m not trying to cry wolf on anybody.  But there’s a lot of talk about oil shale as being the “answer” to US energy security and to rising energy costs.

The problem is, this technology isn’t something that exists in a perfect form.  Currently, it is neither an efficient nor an effective use of resources right now.  It will take significant effort, research dollars, and resources just to get the process to a point where it is market viable – and by that point, the economics might not even be behind it anymore.   An effective production process is not only at least a decade away, but will still at that point be an expensive process that is unlikely to bring affordable energy to America or reduce the cost of energy.  And that isn’t coming from me.  The Congressional Budget Office concluded in a recent study that oil shale would generate no revenue whatsoever between now and 2022.  That’s at least ten years.

So here’s my bottom line.  The final punch I’m going to throw in this boxing match.  If we are going to invest money in developing an energy technology – shouldn’t it be something that is clean, renewable, and without significant downside risks?  Time and time again, oil and mining companies claim that the impacts are low and that they can “mitigate” anything.  Time and time again, we look to fossil fuels as a source of energy, no matter how many environmental crises, social impacts, and political crises are related to commodity-based energy.   And then, we end up with oil spills. We end up with contaminated groundwater.  We end up with areas of our oceans and beaches that are not rehabilitated decades later.  We end up with smog in our cities.  We end up paying millions of dollars to rehabilitate mining sites where the water has reached pH levels that scientists didn’t even think were possible.  And even when rehabilitated, we end up with hundreds of “brownfields” sites that no one wants to go near, because even we do not fully comprehend the risks.

Isn’t it time to take those dollars and invest them in researching a technology that everyone can access?  Maybe we could try something that won’t be bought and sold by the barrel.   Maybe we could try something that everyone can access equally.

To me, that’s just common sense.  But then again, I’m not chasing the almighty dollar, and I’m not the one who stands to make a profit.  Those who do would probably look at it differently.

For further reading, and additional perspectives, I would suggest that interested parties consult any one of the following resources:

The Wilderness Society Fact Sheet: http://wilderness.org/files/Oil-Shale-fs-water.pdf

US Bureau of Land Management Environmental Impact Study: http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/oilshale/index.cfm

NRDC Fact Sheets on Oil Shales: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/dirtyfuels_oil.asp

Study on oil shale by the European Academies Science Advisory Council: http://www.easac.eu/fileadmin/PDF_s/reports_statements/Study.pdf


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