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Oil shale: myth or reality

R. Glenn Vawter

The clean up of waste at Anvil Points was the subject of a recent article in the Post Independent. The article gave the impression that the clean up is in some way connected with the Roan Plateau wilderness area designation issue.Anvil Points is below the cliffs that delineate the Roan Plateau and is already surrounded by gas wells.In the 1920s there was a land rush to our region to lay claim to oil shale reserves and operate small oil shale mines and retorts because oil prices were high and the big oil fields in our nation had not been discovered. Research at Anvil Points and the Naval Shale Reserves were established when the nation was concerned about oil supplies during both world wars. But it was not until the 1960-80 era that genuine interest was again renewed.Energy independence became a watch word as our domestic petroleum reserves could not meet demand and after the Middle East embargo of 1973. Major oil companies rushed to western Colorado thinking there was a bonanza to be had. By the end of the 1970s it became clear that the government’s goals were unreasonable and oil prices were going to stabilize at levels below that required to make oil shale economically viable. So, Exxon, followed by all the others, packed up their bags and left. Much later the Department of Energy even abandoned the NOSR and Anvil Points and turned them both over to BLM. Thus we have the current situation and the need to clean up Anvil Points. Current practices and regulations would require developers to dispose of waste materials in a way not practiced during the half-century of activity at Anvil Points.The huge oil shale resources of western Colorado still hold the potential for supplementing our petroleum supplies. The Canadians developed a commercial tar sand industry, much akin to oil shale, and it produces substantial quantities of petroleum. South Africans produce gasoline from coal on a commercial scale. Israelis burn oil shale to generate electricity. The Australians have a demonstration-scale oil shale facility near Gladstone. We in the United States missed the boat by not at least continuing with support for research and development for processes that could be economic and have less environmental and social impacts than those proposed in the last boom. Ironically to me, there is barely a mention of oil shale in the Roan Plateau Planning Area Draft EIS that is now available for public review. Nor is the potential for oil shale development considered as an alternative in the document. Oil shale has definitely gone off the radar scope. There is, however, a small government/industry group that is considering what appropriate steps might be taken to support oil shale research. Shell is conducting tests on an in situ (underground) process in Rio Blanco County. In my opinion, having the government provide incentives for research is in our best interest, for one never knows what technological advances will occur that could facilitate efficient and environmentally acceptable production from these vast resources.Is $50-60 per barrel oil sufficient to stimulate development? Maybe. Will this lead to another boom like we saw in the 1970s? I doubt it. Energy independence is now unattainable. Continuing to import 60 percent of our energy is also unreasonable especially since it comes from sources that are politically hostile and from reservoirs that are rapidly depleting. We need to get on a path of weaning ourselves away from petroleum.R. Glenn Vawter, of west Glenwood, was formerly employed in the oil shale business.


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