GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The Royal Dutch Shell energy company, which announced this week it is shutting down its demonstration oil shale project in the Piceance Basin, is not exactly disappearing overnight, as happened 31 years ago when Exxon (as it was known then) pulled the plug on its oil shale operations in this region and plunged most of the state into an economic recession.
“We’ll be there for a while,” said Shell spokeswoman Carolyn Tucker on Thursday, noting that the company has much to do before it can call it a day and move on to other pursuits.
The company has three sites for experimenting on methods of oil shale extraction, mostly on Shell’s own private property, Tucker said. But the company also has used a small parcel of U.S. Bureau of Management land, and will need to reclaim all of the land it has used to test Shell’s technology.
“We’ve got lots of reclamation obligations to the BLM,” Tucker said, such as the need to conduct “subsurface reclamation. I know they’ve got to pull pipes up and stuff like that.”
Other reclamation requirements, she said, will include dealing with monitoring wells dug around the grounds to check for contamination of the groundwater.
Most recently, Tucker said, the company has been concentrating on eight pilot projects involving the mining of nahcolite (used to make baking soda) and the subsequent use of “voids,” or underground chambers created by the mining, to implant heating pipes intended to heat the ground up and liquefy an oil-like substance called kerogen that is trapped in rock formations deep underground.
The other key part of Shell’s process, known as the “freezewall,” calls for supercooling the rock around the heated zone in order to prevent kerogen or other pollutants from seeping into the groundwater.
“That worked very satisfactorily,” Tucker said of the freezewall pilot projects, which were completed in 2011.
“We’ve made a lot of great strides in oil shale technology in Colorado,” Tucker continued, explaining that the company plans to use what it learned here in its other oil shale projects around the world, notably in Canada and in Jordan.
“So we’re not moving out of oil shale, we’re just moving out of oil shale in Colorado,” she explained.
She said the company’s other projects are considered more cost effective, in terms of what has been accomplished by experimentation so far and what remains to be done before a full-scale commercial operation can be considered.
Although she declined to give specifics, Tucker said the company has spent “several tens of millions of dollars” in its demonstration projects in western Colorado.
She said the company is still trying to figure out whether to sell or reassign its property in the Piceance Basin.
“The decision [to close the oil shale project down] just came down on Monday,” Tucker said.
Because the company has maintained a workforce of between 10 and 50 personnel at the site, Tucker predicted there will not be a great impact on the local economy, such as the turmoil caused in 1982 when Exxon’s pullout threw some 2,000 workers out of work in a single day.