Growing enthusiasm for Shell shale plans |

Growing enthusiasm for Shell shale plans

David Winsor, of Glenwood Springs, has seen firsthand the challenges associated with oil shale development, working as an environmental consultant to the industry in the Piceance Basin from about 1975-80.

So when he heard about Shell’s ongoing research effort to extract oil from shale by heating it below ground and then pumping it to the surface via wells, he liked the sound of it.

“This is really exciting stuff,” Winsor said as he joined in a community briefing in Rifle Tuesday night, one of four the company is presenting this week on its Mahogany Research Project.

Terry O’Connor, vice president of external and regulatory affairs for the project, told about 100 people in attendance of the project’s work to date, and the next steps. Shell has been working on the patented technology since the 1980s, and recent tests offer “great hope” for producing energy from oil shale in an economically feasible and environmentally sensitive way, he said.

One of those hopes lies in surrounding underground heaters with a freeze wall to both protect groundwater and keep it from snuffing out the heaters, O’Connor said. After success with a small-scale freeze wall, Shell is embarking on a football-field-sized test on 15 acres near its existing research facilities on property it owns in Rio Blanco County.

Shell will drill holes about 1,700 feet deep, fill pipes with chilled fluid and pump out water in the isolated area. Although the technique is new to oil shale development, freeze wall technology has been used in mining, construction and tunnel-building for a century.

Shell also is seeking a Bureau of Land Management permit to try out its heating and oil and gas recovery system inside a freeze wall on 160 acres of leased BLM land. Shell hopes to expand its operations to 5,120 acres of leased BLM land around its research facility if its methods prove successful, and to begin commercial development by the end of the decade.

The method potentially could yield 1 million barrels of oil per acre, and 3.5 energy units for every unit of energy required to produce oil and gas, the company believes. That would help overcome a major obstacle to conventional oil shale technology, which is the high amount of energy required to produce the oil. The conventional technology involves mining the shale and then heating it in a retort.

Shell believes its process is economical, at oil prices of $25 to $30 per barrel ” well below today’s going rate.

But O’Connor emphasized that the process remains unproven. If the freeze wall procedure doesn’t work, for example, Shell wouldn’t be able to proceed and would have to look to a different approach for addressing the water issues.

Shell’s technology appeals to Winsor.

“They’re addressing to me two of the big issues,” he said.

Those are groundwater containment and disposal of spent shale, he said. Spent shale isn’t a problem with Shell’s technology because the shale remains in the ground rather than being mined.

Winsor said Shell still faces some major environmental challenges. Those include protecting the mule deer population where it would develop oil shale, and protecting air quality, particularly the pristine air in the Flat Tops, as it refines oil and gas once they are brought to the surface.

In addition, he said, Shell faces socioeconomic considerations, such as road construction needs and other impacts that would result if it goes forward with full-scale oil shale development.

Such impacts hit hard in western Garfield County when oil shale last boomed, in the late 1970s. As a result, Shell has been careful to try to keep local communities up to date about its new process and prospective time line, and not to create unreasonable expectations that could attract a rush of workers looking for jobs that don’t yet exist.

“They’re doing a thorough job of keeping everybody informed,” Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown said during Tuesday’s open house.

Shell also is holding open houses this week in Grand Junction, Rangely and Meeker.

Paul Light, who is semi-retired and living in Battlement Mesa, said he didn’t live there during the last oil shale boom but visited the area when Exxon was building worker housing in what is now Battlement Mesa. He likes Shell’s plans.

“I’m rather impressed with what they’re trying to do,” he said.

A concern for him is Shell’s measured approach. Light worries that while Shell continues to conduct research, other companies will come along and develop oil shale through the traditional means of mining and retorting.

“I don’t think that’s a very environmentally friendly way of doing it,” he said.

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

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