Shell to lay out oil shale research plans |

Shell to lay out oil shale research plans

Shell Exploration and Production Company has put oil shale back in the news with its Mahogany Research Project northwest of Rifle.Now the company plans a series of public meetings Friday and Saturday to explain the project.Unlike the retort process from 20 years ago, which mined oil shale and then heated the rocks to extract oil, Shell’s experimental technique is more similar to a conventional oil well, said research project spokesperson Rich Hansen.Shell has been experimenting with its “in situ” process in the Piceance Basin for three or four years, Hansen said.”We feel the community has a right to know more about the project,” Hansen said from his office in Houston.Hansen said there are rumors that Shell is using open house meetings in Rifle, Rangely and Meeker to announce plans of a commercial oil shale operation.”That’s not the case,” he said, although the company’s dream is to launch a commercial oil shale operation someday.Oil shale (aka “the rock that burns”) has attracted energy industry attention since the early part of the 20th century. But extracting oil from shale always proved more expensive, and less economically viable, than drilling for it.During the energy crunch of the 1970s, energy companies such as Exxon and Unocal charged in to develop oil shale reserves in western Garfield County.Energy companies pumped billions of dollars into oil shale production and research. Economic impacts were felt all over the Western Slope, but boom turned to bust when Exxon announced on May 2, 1982, that it was pulling out due to lower oil prices.Other energy companies followed suit. Unocal was the last major company to pull out, shutting its doors in 1991.Since then, oil shale was seen as just another pipe dream, except by a few true believers.But in the past few years, Shell has quietly worked on an oil shale revival.Hansen said Shell’s Mahogany Project is located on 20,000 acres the company owns in the Piceance Basin, equidistant from Rifle to the east, Meeker to the north, and Rangely to the northwest.The Piceance Basin is estimated to hold about 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the Denver Business Journal.Only a fraction of that oil can be extracted by Shell’s in situ process, Hansen said. That’s because the wells must be drilled on fairly flat terrain, while much of the Piceance Basin’s deposits lies inside mountains.Hansen said there are several differences between the in situ process Shell is exploring and the old retort process. With in situ, a well is dug, oil shale is heated up in the ground and then it is pumped out, somewhat like an oil well.The retort process, which was used on an experimental scale in Parachute in the 1970s, called for oil shale to be mined in horizontal shafts in mountainsides, hauled out and then heated to extract the oil. The retort process would have created millions of tons of tailings to be disposed of, a huge environmental impact.”With in situ, there are no tailing piles,” Hansen explained.The retort process also uses huge amounts of water, he said.”In situ uses less water, and we’re researching how to use even less,” Hansen said.Hansen said the Mahogany Project is named for the rich mahogany oil shale vein that runs through the Piceance Basin. The project’s objectives are threefold:-To test new technology to determine whether it works and is environmentally sound.-To understand oil shale production’s environmental ramifications, and how to mitigate impacts.-To research impacts on schools and hospitals and other community concerns.Currently, the Mahogany Project employs about 20 workers.The Rifle open house is slated for 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Fireside Inn. Hansen said there will be displays, posters and other information available, and Shell staffers will be on hand to answer questions. Refreshments will be served. RSVPs are encouraged at 1-866-222-8200.Other meetings are slated for 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Friday at Northwest Community College in Rangely and from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Friday at the Community Hall in Meeker.

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