Posts Tagged ‘oil industries’

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.


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.

Read Full Post »

Hi all!


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:


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.

Read Full Post »

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:


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.

Read Full Post »

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 »

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.


Actually, I just wanted to talk about lighting things on fire.

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:


Colorado is beautiful! Let's go hiking.

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.

Some resources for anyone who wants to read more about oil shale are here and here.

Read Full Post »

Hi folks! Guess what – it’s lunchtime! Om nom nom.  Whether you’re sitting at your desk stalking food trucks for the best falafel in the city, just coming back from grabbing your usual sandwich down the block, or just gave up and had a cupcake for lunch (like me!), we thought  we’d offer you something a bit crunchier for today.

With all of the talk about America’s energy future, and Republican candidates running around saying truly asinine things about how we should drill wherever, whenever, to extract any type of energy that we can, there’s a lot of flapping about how America can best use our own natural resources.  Rick Santorum seems to think that his party’s approach to this (anyone else remember the infamous,“Drill, baby, drill!”) makes them the pro “science” party – something that I pondered heavily this morning while on the bus to work wondering when “scientists” in his universe started running around willy-nilly without considering the consequences of their actions.  But no matter, I’m off topic.

Kara asked me the other day if I could put on my geology hat for a while and come up with a post on oil shale. I obliged here, mostly because I really like my geology hat, and I don’t get to wear it very much anymore.

Actually I have several geology hats. This is just one of them.

As I started to dig into this, though, I realized that Maria von Trapp was right: the beginning is a very good place to start.  Therefore, before I get into the specifics of oil shale, we’re going to talk about unconventional oil as a whole.

So, what does the phrase “unconventional oil” mean?

My favorite wellspring of knowledge, Wikipedia, has this tidy summary of ‘unconventional oil’

Unconventional oil is petroleum produced or extracted using techniques other than the conventional (oil well) method. Oil industries and governments across the globe are investing in unconventional oil sources due to the increasing scarcity of conventional oil reserves. Although the depletion of such reserves is evident, unconventional oil production is a less efficient process and has greater environmental impacts than that of conventional oil production.”

Unconventional oils are a non-renewable form of energy.  Types of unconventional oil include: oil shale, tar sands or oil sands, extra-heavy crude oil, synthetic crude, and “gas-to-liquid” byproducts of the refinement of natural gas.

As a preview for next time, this is what oil shale looks like. I don't think you can put it in your car like that and drive away.

With these types of products, you can’t just use a normal oil well to pump them out of a reservoir the way that you would with conventional crude.  You can’t even use the same processes that extract natural gas.  Typically, extraction involves a mining-like process, often requiring an enormous input of heat and/or water.  Furthermore, once extracted, the refinement process for unconventional oils is significantly more complex and energy intensive than conventional sources.

When we talk about energy, typically a “life cycle analysis” includes the total cost for the extraction process, refining into a usable form, and transporting that to a location where it can be accessed.  In future post(s), I’ll hone in on the specifics of each type of unconventional oil and talk about what this would look like.  As a preview, though, I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a pretty picture.

Why are we suddenly so interested in these types of oil?

There’s only one reason: because we’re running out of the other stuff.

Oil companies are developing technologies that would allow them to transition to extraction, refinement, and production of unconventional oils – and lobbying for expanded access to these resources – in order to continue their businesses.  Within the U.S., large areas of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are those which are being eyed for increased production of unconventional oils.

The main argument they use is that this energy could be plentiful (so is wind and solar, but hey, nobody asked about that I guess) and that it would be sourced from either domestic locations or friendly neighbors (Canada).

So why wouldn’t we do it?

First, I’m going to come back to the theme of: renewable, renewable, and renewable.  You want to extract unconventional oils? That’s nice, but eventually, those resources will have been depleted as well.  High predictions suggest that these reserves could last 100+ years, but these are based on the assumption that U.S. demand for energy will decrease (unlikely).  Additionally, it’s unlikely that these resources will remain entirely in the U.S., decreasing the time frame in which we will be self-sufficient even more.

So, in a few short decades, we’ll have contaminated surface and ground waters, poisoned our soil, and released millions of pounds of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  And, on top of all that, we’ll be right back where we started looking for yet another energy source.

Second, we wouldn’t do it because the environmental impacts compromise other critical resources: land, air, and water.  Extraction of unconventional oils is so invasive that it makes hydraulic fracturing or conventional mining look like a cake walk, and puts virtually all of our other resources – streams, rivers, groundwater, soil, other nearby bodies of water, and air, at risk for contamination.  Extracting and refining these resources is kind of like combining mining, oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing together in a mélange of chemical contamination that would make anyone cringe if they thought about it too hard. They are also processes that consume enormous amounts of fresh water and energy that might have been used for something else….like, for regular people, maybe?

What oil sands extraction looks like. Ewww.

And, what tar sands look like, before and after. Photo via http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/

As a side bar, the above photo (the 2nd one) was re-blogged from re-posted from “I Count For My Earth,” another WordPress enviro blog.  (That is less, uhm, quirky than we are.)  If you want to see (read?) her take on Tar Sands and watchsome compelling footage, point your browser to http://icountformyearth.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/prepare-to-have-your-mind-blown-by-this-tar-sands-video/.

The final reason why we wouldn’t do it is economics.  The extraction of unconventional oil is energy intense, time consuming, and messy.  All of those things translate to a very high cost.  While widespread production might offset some of this, it is unlikely that anyone will see a drop in their energy cost because of unconventional oil.

If you want to read someone else’s explanation of this, check out this article on Treehugger.  Or, if you’d like to read more about oil shale extraction (and watch an upsetting video, which always makes the work day better), you can check out this spot.

What’s the bottom line?

As Arnold said, “I’ll be back.”

The bottom line is to hang on for more to come from SpinachHQ.  In future Crunchies, I’ll be getting into the specifics of oil shale, tar sands, and other forms on unconventional oil and how each is extracted and refined.  Then we’ll be able to talk a little bit more about the risks and rewards associated with each.  But, I thought it was important to lay the groundwork first.

Do you have questions, comments, or thoughts?  Feel free to share below, as long as you keep it friendly.  And please, don’t make stuff up.  As my friend Matt likes to say: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.  Trust me, one of us WILL call you out.

Read Full Post »