Just try heating your home with oil shale | PostIndependent.com

Just try heating your home with oil shale

My Side
Randy Udall
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Randy Udall

Oil shale has always been a riddle. There’s a staggering quantity of it in western Colorado, but first production always is 10 years away.

At a recent congressional hearing in Grand Junction, industry representatives said, “We’re still in the research and development phase, but remember we’ve got four times more oil than the Saudis do.”

If only!

That myth dies hard. Our “oil” is a solid locked up in a trillion tons of rock, while theirs pours forth in staggering quantity from a few thousand wells.

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The Saudis produce about 10 million barrels a day, using fewer drilling rigs than we have in Colorado. If each day they can produce 10 million barrels, you’d think that we could produce something from our oil shale.

Forget 10 million barrels a day, why don’t we aim for 10 barrels, something, anything. As it is, a single natural gas well or rooftop solar system produces far more energy every year than all that oil shale.

Why is that? What is this stuff we call oil shale, and why has it been “just around the corner” for a century?

Let’s try a redneck experiment.

Winter’s coming, and I’m willing to pay $1,000 to the first Coloradan who decides to heat their house with oil shale. I’ll deliver it in October, free of charge.

Such an experiment would teach you a lot. First, you’d learn that there’s three times more energy in a pound of split pine or recycled phone books or cattle manure or Cap’n Crunch than in a pound of oil shale.

Next, you’d learn that 85 percent of oil shale is inert mineral matter. This means that on a cold winter day you’d have to shovel about 700 pounds of rocks into your oil shale furnace and remove 600 pounds of ash.

If, during the course of the winter, you burned 40 tons (about what you’d need), come spring you’d have 36 tons of hazardous waste, enough to fill three dump trucks.

I’ll pay for the dump trucks, you deal with the EPA.

Oil shale may be the petroleum equivalent of fool’s gold, but man, there’s a lot of it.

Back in 2007, when the Interior Department first leased federal land for research and development, Royal Dutch Shell secured 15,000 acres. If you overlook the company’s hasty hiring of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, this was a perfectly legal heist whose scale should be better appreciated.

In that part of the Piceance Basin, there’s a million barrels of oil shale per acre, and thus Shell sits on 15 billion barrels, as much as was found at Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. At today’s oil prices, the company has rights to more than $1 trillion – yes, trillion with a T – of public minerals, if they can develop the technology to extract it.

That’s a huge incentive to pull the sword from the stone, and the fact that Shell hasn’t is telling. According to company representatives, they are still 10, or maybe 15 years away.

Geez, now they’re going in reverse.

Maybe it’s time for Colorado politicians who tout oil shale as the next great thing to reassess.

In a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. If oil shale ever does become economic, the national appetite for petroleum could devour towns like Rifle, Meeker and Rangely, mule deer herds, and whatever water remains in the Colorado River.

Happily, the history of oil shale suggests it may remain a no-show.

In the last few years, oil shale research has been overtaken by unexpected events in the energy space. You know what excites independent oil and gas producers?

It’s not oil shale – it’s shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken, Texas’s Eagle Ford, and Colorado’s Niobrara formations. The combination of long horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing means that by 2015 the U.S. may produce 900,000 barrels each day of shale oil.

The drilling rigs that left Colorado? That’s where they’ve gone.

And no wonder, since a good Bakken well can produce $100,000 to $200,000 of oil each day when it first comes on line, repaying its cost in months.

America’s energy future?

The ingredients are clear. It’s going to be about natural gas, shale oil, coal, wind, solar, and more fuel efficient cars, not cooking dirty oil out of stubborn rocks.

Randy Udall of Carbondale is an energy analyst.

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