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Conversion process approaches new frontier

Oil shale technology has come a long way since the mid-1970s, when the alchemy of turning oil shale into petroleum required a monumental effort.Back then, the shale was mined horizontally, much like coal. Then it was trucked to a retort plant where it was heated, and the liquefied shale, or kerogen, carried off to refining plants across the country.The process was expensive and required vast amounts of water. It did not prove to be economically viable for the energy companies that put millions of dollars into research and development.Now, a multinational company and a man in Vernal, Utah, are both at work on new technology that could give oil shale the boost it needs to become an economic alternative to conventional oil sources.Shell Exploration and Production established its Mahogany Research Project in 2000 on 22,000 acres it owns in the Piceance Basin to test a new in-situ process. Well bores are drilled into the Green River sandstone, then the shale is slowly heated in the ground to temperatures of 650 to 700 degrees. Conventional oil drilling methods bring liquid kerogen and natural gas to the surface. “Shell is taking an innovative approach,” said Gary Aho, of Rifle, an oil shale consultant to the Department of Energy. Shell is buying commercial electricity to run its heaters but plans to build coal-fired power plants near their drilling operation. When enough oil and natural gas are produced from its wells, Shell will use excess gas to power the electrical generation plants, he said.Byron Merrell, of Vernal, is developing yet another technique for converting oil shale to petroleum. His company, Oil Tech, has built a prototype retort plant near Bonanza, which heats the shale to produce kerogen. He claims it can produce oil for $10 to $20 per barrel and when it’s in commercial production, 1,000 barrels per day.”Byron Merrell is a straight-up shooter,” Aho said. “I think he’s on to something with his above-ground retort.


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