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Glenwood Springs man promoting oil shale production

Phillip Yates
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Glenn Vawter
ALL |

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Glenn Vawter had a good job in 1982.

After almost 20 years of hard work, he had ascended to the executive ranks with Tosco Corp. ” a partner in Exxon’s Colony oil shale facility near Parachute.

Then came May 2, 1982, a day many Garfield County residents know as “Black Sunday.” That day, Exxon shut down its oil shale operations, throwing about 2,300 people into unemployment and sending the area’s economy into a tailspin.



“I was one of those people who lost my job when Exxon got out in 1982,” Vawter said.

Almost 26 years later, Vawter hasn’t abandoned oil shale.



Instead, Vawter is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs-based National Oil Shale Association and says extraction of the resource may be poised to make a comeback on the Western Slope.

Vawter said there are two reasons why possible future development of oil shale might avoid the potential problems that has always seemed to plague its commercial production ” which has been tried off and on again for more than a century.

“The technologies that are being developed this time are different and have a greater potential for being successful,” Vawter said. “And there was never, the last time we did this, a potential for a shortage of petroleum to meet demand.”

But the memories of 1982 still linger for many people, Vawter said.

“The first thing I ever hear when I say I am involved in oil shale is, ‘Don’t you remember what happened in 1982?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I lost my job over it,'” Vawter said. “If anybody can say let’s get over it, I think it’s me. I think that is what we have to do.”

Vawter said the focus of the organization he now leads is to “develop factual information to get to the public and officials.”

“We don’t lobby, and we don’t take positions on legislation or issues,” said Vawter, adding the National Oil Shale Association was group that existed in the 1970s and early 1980s.

After the oil shale bust, Vawter said the group went into hibernation, but that it still existed as a not-for-profit organization. But with the revitalization of interest in oil shale development, the organization’s former board of directors decided they wanted to “reformulate it and open it up again.”

The group officially restarted its operations on Jan. 1, Vawter said.

“We do advocate responsible development of oil shale,” Vawter said. “We are not opposing it, and we believe it is necessary if it can be done responsibly for the security of the United States.”

Frank Smith, oil shale and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance organizer for the Western Colorado Congress, also calls for responsible development of oil shale, but added the group would emphasize the “responsibility aspects.”

“At this time, it would not be responsible on the part of the Bureau of Land Management as stewards of our public lands to move forward with additional commercial leases for oil shale development,” said Smith, saying technologies for extracting the resource have not yet been proven to be “commercially feasible or environmentally viable.”

The main concerns Smith and the residents he represents have over oil shale development are a possible decrease of quality life in the area, along with air and water impacts on the Western Slope.

“Additionally, there would potentially be massive inundation to our local community’s already strained infrastructure,” said Smith, saying roads near Parachute are already taking a beating from nearby gas drilling.

In December, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS), designating about 2 million acres as potential areas for oil shale leasing. It is the BLM’s preferred alternative to open the most amount of lands to commercial oil shale leasing. That could mean that about 360,000 acres in Colorado could be open to oil shale development.

The BLM has said the potential oil shale resources within the Green River Formation in the Western United States are more than 50 times the United States’ current proven conventional oil reserves and about five times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Companies have been trying for years to develop an economically feasible way of extracting the vast oil shale reserves in several Western states. A renewed interest in the energy source has developed because of high oil prices and diminishing world supplies. Last year, the BLM issued three companies five 160-acre oil shale research, development and demonstration leases in northwest Colorado.

When Vawter was with Tosco, oil shale was mined out of the ground and then heated above the surface to make oil ” a process that required temperatures of at least 900 degrees.

Now, most research into oil shale recovery is focusing on in-situ processing, which means extracting oil shale out of the ground without having to mine it, Vawter said.

“The new technologies that are now being developed in the research and development phase, are these principally in-situ technologies, with the hope that they will be more economic, and that they’ll cause less impact on the environment,” Vawter said.

However, he stressed many of the proposed technologies are still far away from being commercially proven.

One of those possible techniques was announced earlier this year when Raytheon said it was selling oil shale extraction technology to Schlumberger, a global oilfield services provider. The key behind the new process is microwaves, which would generate underground heat and potentially release petroleum from the rock formations.

Vawter said when companies were pushing oil shale production in the early ’80s, they were working hard to get commercial production very soon with technologies that weren’t “really ready.”

“This time around, people are proceeding in a more diligent progression of do the research, do a development, let’s prove we can do this commercially and in an environmentally sound way before embarking on a commercial project,” Vawter said. “The short answer is that I don’t think we will see anyone embark on a commercial project for well into the next decade.”

The National Oil Shale Association website is available at oilshaleassoc.org.


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