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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Read Full Post »