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Oil shale bounces back with DOD’s renewed interest

Gary Aho has seen both the best and worst of times in his 25 years in the Colorado River Valley. On the forefront of oil shale development in the 1970s, Aho is once again in the fray.Aho came to Rifle in 1964 with Cleveland Cliffs, an oil shale mining company. He retired from that company in the ’80s and is now a mining consultant.Aho sits on an advisory committee the Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves formed to develop a plan for oil shale production focusing on the Piceance Basin in Colorado, eastern Utah and southern Wyoming, he said.The Piceance Basin holds one of the world’s richest deposits of oil shale. At the turn of the last century, the U.S. Navy set aside those resources as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve to preserve the resource for future strategic use. With oil now well in excess of $50 per barrel, interest has once again focused on oil shale as the answer to America’s need for domestic oil.”A lot of people believe we will run out of transportation fuel in the near future because of the increased demand for oil all over the world, especially in China,” Aho said. Petroleum production is also expected to peak in five to 10 years “and will start to decline on a world scale.”That scenario has brought renewed the DOD’s interest in developing a universal transportation fuel that can be used in all military vehicles. Aho said it will likely be jet fuel, which is now being used in some military vehicles in Iraq.”One of the best sources (of petroleum) for jet fuel is oil shale,” he added. “The target goal is 2 million barrels of shale oil a day by 2025.”Shell Exploration and Production Co. is closely involved in the effort with its Mahogany Research Project, which is testing an oil shale extraction process that involves heating the shale underground and pumping the liquid to the surface. Oil shale is already being produced in commercial quantities in Estonia, China and Brazil, Aho said.Besides working toward commercialization of oil shale, the committee is also trying to assess the potential social and economic impacts a resurrection of the industry would bring.Garfield County experienced a boom in the late 1970s and early ’80s when the Carter administration, in the face of a worldwide oil shortage, formed the Synthetic Fuels Corp., which subsidized energy companies in their search for a cost effective means of extracting petroleum from oil shale in the Piceance Basin.But a cost effective method for turning oil shale into petroleum proved elusive. The county reeled from the abrupt pullout of one of the industry’s biggest players, Exxon, from its Colony Oil Shale plant in Parachute. Exxon pulled out on May 2, 1982, putting 2,100 people out of work in one day.A new oil shale industry could bring in 100,000 workers, their families and service-related people, he said. While the impact would be huge, it could also bring a substantial employment base of high-paying jobs to a county that has not seen a stable industrial economy.”We’ve seen the oil and gas companies come in and the service companies, and in a couple years, when the drilling is completed, they go back to Oklahoma or Wyoming or wherever they’re from,” Aho said. In contrast, the life of an oil shale industry could extend over 25 or 30 years.Aho acknowledged it could also have negative impacts, and the rural life here could change dramatically.Aho acknowledged it could also have negative impacts, and the rural life here could change dramatically.


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