Guest column: Is there a future for oil shale?
The recent war in Europe brings new light to the need for secure domestic supplies of fossil energy, especially oil, in our country.
A threat of expanding conflicts in Europe, Asia and the Middle East are on the horizon, especially with Russia going so far as to threaten the use of its nuclear weapons, and China seriously threatening to take back Taiwan. There is also the continuing threat that war will break out between Israel and its oil producing neighbors, who could retaliate, as OPEC did with the U.S. oil embargo of 1974.
As in decades past, oil and natural gas are major factors in conflicts that affect our lives. We now import 20% of the petroleum we consume after being independent of foreign oil supplies from hostile sources a couple of years ago.
Supplies of oil and natural gas coming to western Europe from Russia have placed Germany and other European allies at the mercy of the Russian Bear. The United States has decided to cut off supplies of oil from Russia, leaving us at the mercy of OPEC to fill the gap.
In the past, Saudia Arabia could open their wells, fill the gap, and drive crude oil and gasoline prices down. They no longer have the ability to do so, because the oil wells there are declining rapidly. Supplies of oil we rely upon from Canada are also tenuous because of the political leanings in that country against producing oil in Alberta that comes to refineries in our country. The cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline by the Biden administration is also a contributing factor. In the long haul, as strange as it may sound, the United States may have to supply oil (and liquified natural gas) to its allies, as it did before 1972, when the United States controlled the supplies and price of petroleum in the world.
It is doubtful that the current U.S. administration will call for domestic energy independence. I imagine it will depend upon how bad the international situation becomes, and whether the president is forced by public pressure to act, as was the case twice in the last decades — once by President Carter in 1979 and then by President Bush in 2005. Each time, after the crisis passed, our leaders chose to continue to import foreign oil and ignore domestic supplies such as oil shale.
In my opinion, President Biden and the Congress should encourage domestic oil and gas development, open up federal land to oil exploration, work with Canada to increase exports of petroleum and finish the Keystone Pipeline. They should then recognize the potential for oil shale to play a future role in the security of the country by having the Secretaries of Energy, Interior, Defense and Commerce begin planning for commercializing the vast oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, as was mandated by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which is still on the books.
Yes, I remember Black Sunday when Exxon stopped the massive Colony Shale Oil Project on May 2, 1982. I lost my job, as many others did. We should not invite Exxon back, although they did fund and build Battlement Mesa. We do not need another boom and bust. We need a well-considered long-term plan for the commercialization of oil shale in our area, in order to give the citizens of the United States the confidence that when it is needed, it will be ready.
I know many people in this country do not think we will need fossil fuels in the future because renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels could replace them overnight, if we just had the necessary government policies. That is not the case. Even if the nation continues down a path toward total use of renewable energy, there will still be an interim need for domestic supplies of oil, probably for decades.
In light of the current world situation, we need to make sure those supplies come from our country. Petroleum produced from “fracked” petroleum reservoirs could fill the supply gap for a while. However, those wells will peter out, as have our conventional oil fields.
Improved technologies can make the production of oil from local oil shale deposits less expensive, more environmentally friendly and less water intensive than was the case in the 1970s.
Lastly, planning for development of oil shale, this time around, needs to focus on the long-term future. Oil shale cannot provide an immediate fix, as it was called up to do by earlier federal administrations. That having been said, oil shale is the nation’s “last resort” supply of domestic oil; which provides the gasoline for our cars and all the other petroleum products we need in our daily lives.
Glenn Vawter lives in Glenwood Springs, where he graduated high school in 1955. He is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and attended the Harvard Business School. He held engineering, management and executive positions in the energy sector for 50 years. He is the author of books on energy and oil shale and serves on the board of directors of the National Oil Shale Association.
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