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Oil shalers should learn from the past

We are starting to see an apparent interest in oil shale development in our region. I attended a meeting in Salt Lake City on March 30, which in times past would have been one of those smoke-filled room meetings. But of course, now there is no smoking in conference rooms, and in Salt Lake you even have to buy a license to have a drink.The meeting was organized by the U.S. departments of Energy, Defense and Interior, and was attended by oil industry representatives, local and state officials, contractors, and old oil shalers like me. The government presented the outline of a plan that will be presented to the Congress. The draft plan was created in response to President Bush’s policy to stimulate domestic energy production.The meeting harkened me back to a time 30 years ago, when energy independence was the watch word and billions of dollars were spent to develop liquid and gaseous fuels from oil shale and coal. Not one drop of commercial fuel was produced. The major company developers packed their bags in the 1980s and returned to their conventional petroleum interests, and essentially all research and development ceased.Will it be different this time around? Will there be another boom? Maybe, but hopefully we will have learned from the past failures and go at it a different way. On its face, the plan emphasizes research and development, and that is the right approach. But it disturbed me that a goal was established of some 2 million barrels per day of shale oil production in the next two decades. I understand the government managers need this goal to impress upon the Congress and administration that the effort, and cost to the taxpayers, is worthwhile in the larger scheme of things. But it is certainly the way to scare the local public into a revolt against the plan.This time around, an industry needs to evolve naturally by responding to economic stimuli and with government policies that foster research and development by small entrepreneurs, as well as large firms. Local citizens and their elected officials need to be a party to the plans, and environmental protection, socioeconomic impact mitigation and water supply issues need to be emphasized.The Canadian tar sand experience is an economic model that we should study and follow where applicable. Starting at about the same time as our last oil shale boom, the Canadians began the development of a tar sand resource in Alberta. It has grown to produce about 1 million barrels per day of high-quality petroleum that is shipped to the western refineries here in the States.As I left the meeting, I heard the most profound statement from one of the attendees, “There was a lot of talk, but will there be action to follow it up?” Will the policies be sufficient to stimulate business into action? And most importantly, will the policies be sustained for decades and eliminated the boom bust cycle?Glenn Vawter is a resident of Glenwood Springs. He spent 25 years pursuing the oil shale dream, beginning in 1964. He is now a consultant in the energy and environmental sectors.


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