Study finds more oil shale in Piceance Basin |

Study finds more oil shale in Piceance Basin

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

PICEANCE BASIN, Colorado ” The Piceance Basin is loaded with oil shale.

An updated government assessment estimates there’s about 50 percent more oil shale there than previously thought.

The U.S. Geological Survey now estimates the Piceance Basin has around 1.525 trillion barrels worth of “in-place oil shale resources.” The agency also found an estimated 43.3 billion tons of nahcolite in the Piceance Basin. It’s embedded with oil shale in many places and produces “large quantities” of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when it’s heated in oil shale processing, the USGS said.

At the time of the last USGS assessment in 1989, the agency said there was about 1 trillion barrels of oil in the Piceance Basin’s oil shale.

It is not known how much of the oil is actually recoverable because developing oil shale “has significant technological and environmental challenges and no economic extraction method is currently available in the U.S.,” the USGS said in an announcement.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement, “The USGS scientific report shows significant quantities of oil locked up in the shale rocks of the Piceance Basin. I believe it demonstrates the need for our continued research and development efforts.”

“In the big picture of things I don’t think it makes much difference,” said Glen Vawter, National Oil Shale Association’s executive director. “You’re talking about trillions of barrels of resource. Even with the earlier estimates it was so huge that that’s always what has brought people back to oil shale. … It probably reinforces the fact that it’s this immense and important resource.”

The association, based in Glenwood Springs, promotes responsible oil shale development.

Western Colorado Congress spokesman Duke Cox said the announcement is an interesting statistic but it’s never really been about exactly how much oil shale there is. He said, “There’s an enormous potential, but the problem is for 100 years, industry has been trying to figure out a way to unlock that potential, and we’re still not there.”

He said it will most likely take at least 10 years before anyone knows if they can harvest oil shale and turn a profit without government subsidies.

Wilderness Workshop says on its website the impacts of oil shale development north of Rifle would be “catastrophic,” and would include surface disturbance, new coal-fired power plants, appropriation of “essentially all” of the Western Slope’s water, horrendous air pollution and disproportionate climate-change effects.

Oil shale advocates say oil shale development would use only a small portion of water in the Colorado River Basin, it can be done responsibly, and an oil shale industry would provide numerous benefits to the public and governments including tax revenues, economic diversification and job creation.

Shell Exploration and Production, American Oil Shale Co., Chevron and Exxon are four companies actively researching and developing oil shale technology in Colorado.

Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd said the traditional estimate of how much oil is actually recoverable from the Piceance Basin is about 800 billion barrels. As oil becomes harder and harder to find, unconventional resources like oil shale start to look more attractive, he said, “and when you look at how much is sitting out there it’s a pretty mind-boggling number. 800 billion is three times Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.”

Shell is working on oil shale development proposals for three Bureau of Land Management research, development and demonstration leases. It hopes to submit an application to initiate permitting on one of those within a year, Boyd said.

Shell continues work on a freeze-wall test on private land in Rio Blanco County. It involves creating an ice-wall barrier around an area that would be heated for oil shale production, in order to protect the surrounding aquifer.

Oil can only be squeezed from oil shale by heating to around 530 to 930 degrees because oil shale doesn’t contain oil, but instead contains kerogen, which is an organic precursor to oil that must be heated for oil production, the USGS said.

“The Piceance Basin contains one of the thickest and richest oil shale deposits in the world and is the focus of most ongoing oil shale research and development extraction projects in the U.S.,” the USGS said.

Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121

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