Oil Shale: As Much Energy as a Baked Potato


Posted on 18 November 2011

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By Pablo Rodriguez
Communities for a New California

Today, Republicans in Washington D.C. held a hearing on increasing the amount of land dedicated to oil shale extraction. Oil shale is a rock that contains a waxy substance called kerogen. When kerogen is heated to extremely high temperatures, it releases a substance that can be turned into crude oil. As with so many things, however, the devil is in the details when it comes to oil shale.   

It takes a lot of rock to create oil shale. In fact, pound for pound, oil shale has about the same amount of energy as a baked potato. Given that, in many cases the amount of energy recovered from oil shale is less than the amount of energy used in the extraction process. If that wasn’t enough, the technology to develop oil shale is not commercially viable and could likely depend heavily on already scarce water in the West.   

So it’s with great concern that today’s hearing highlighted legislation that would give away millions of acres of public land for oil shale extraction and provide oil companies with more taxpayer subsidies. I hope that California’s voice on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources – Central Valley Congressman Jim Costa – will stand strong against these attempts by House Republicans to sell off our country’s natural resources.

Congressman Costa represents an area that’s been hard hit by environmental challenges – from air pollution that is among the worst in the country to lead and contaminates in the water. The Central Valley knows firsthand the cost of dirty air and water – high asthma rates in our children and many health issues in pregnant women and the elderly.   

Given this, I hope that Congressman Costa will speak up on behalf of other communities that may suffer a similar fate if increased oil shale extraction is allowed.

After all, are we willing to sell our health, our children’s well-being, and clean air and water for a source of energy that’s worth as much as a baked potato?

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Pablo Rodríguez is the Executive Director of Communities for a New California (CNC), a statewide civil rights advocacy organization. Prior to CNC, Pablo worked as a Public Policy Consultant as well as serving as Director of the Dolores Huerta Community Organizing Institute. Pablo is committed to achieving public policy that is socially, economically, and environmentally just for California’s families.

What you describe is very similar to tar sand production. Deriving oil from kerogen has never been particularly feasible in the US. Jimmy Carter spent a lot of money on this and when the subsidies were gone, so was the effort.

However, do not confuse this with oil from the Bakken. This is sometimes called shale oil but it is not from kerogen. The Bakken has a lot of oil, however, its porosity is low and it was, until recently, not considered economically recoverable. However, new slant drilling techniques have allow these formations to be fractured (or "frakked"). Thus, the porosity of the formations is increased and oil is now recoverable. This is not a particularly energy intensive process, it is, rather, a capital intensive one. So, be careful when you describe oil shale extraction. If it is of the type being done in the Bakken, and it almost assuredly is, then your arguments about energy requirment is wrong.

The author of this comment is wrong to assert that oil in the Bakken Formation is not from kerogen. Virtually all hydrocarbons come from source rocks rich in kerogen. In the Bakken Formation, the kerogen has reacted naturally to produce the oil.

No one has yet done an energy analysis for hydraulically fractured wells, but the energy input is likely to be greater than that for a conventional well, especially when one considers the likelihood of the well being fracked multiple times during its lifetime.

The current effort to investigate the feasibility of producing shale oil from oil shale (a fine-grained organic rich sediment that contains immature solid hydrocarbons) is not being subsidized by the government, but is proceeding at a measured pace. Companies based in Utah have current plans to begin production in 2013-2014 and 2019-2020 respectively. The one published estimate of production costs in Oil and Gas Journal suggests profitability in the range of $38-65 per barrel, depending upon the approach taken.

The terms oil shale and shale oil have been applied to the rock and the pyrolysis product for one hundred years in English and since the 1830 in French.

Jeremy Boak, Director
Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
Colorado School of Mines
Golden CO
Views presented here are mine, and are not positions of the Colorado School of Mines

Each of the assertions in the second paragraph of this article is false or misleading.

1) "It takes a lot of rock to create oil shale. In fact, pound for pound, oil shale has about the same amount of energy as a baked potato."

This may or may not be true. The energy content of an oil reservoir rock is even less that this. So as a potential source of oil, the oil shale rock is remarkably energy dense. Plus, in the Green River Formation, the thickness of oil shale is so great that there is the potential to recover more than one million barrels from every acre, more than any oil field in the world. Even though coal is more energy dense, it is never found in such thick producible sections, and requires substantial energy to mine and transport it. The product of heating oil shale is not "a substance that can be turned into crude oil", it is oil, and it does take more energy to release that oil than conventional oil production.

2) "Given that, in many cases the amount of energy recovered from oil shale is less than the amount of energy used in the extraction process."
Unlike corn-based ethanol, a variety of methods are available to extract the energy from oil shale, none of which has been shown to take more energy than is released in the way of oil. The author cannot cite one of these "many cases." Energy return on investment is estimated in the range from 2.5-12 barrels of energy for barrel equivalent of input energy.

3) "If that wasn’t enough, the technology to develop oil shale is not commercially viable and could likely depend heavily on already scarce water in the West."

Oil shale has been produced in Brazil, Estonia, and China for decades, and the Estonian company Enefit has announced plans to design and build a state of the art retorting facility to produce oil by 2020, and 50,000 barrels per day by 2025. They will be operating an additional similar commercial plant in Estonia next year, and also plan a plants in Jordan. For in situ production, which is a technology in the experimental stage, production is estimated to be economically viable at $38/barrel, although this value is somewhat dependent upon costs that vary with oil price. It is consistently less than current oil prices. If you think oil prices are headed below $40/barrel in the next couple of years, I would love to hear your reasoning.

Oil shale development will likely use some water, but the water use will be a fraction of that used for agriculture in the state, and, on a per barrel basis, will be a tenth or less of that required for biofuel production. Companies have already acquired water rights they feel are necessary. The real question is whether that water will be used for oil shale development, or stolen for large cities outside the region.

The author ought to gather some genuine facts before he posts an article evidently so far outside his area of expertise. Results of five Oil Shale Symposia are posted at the above website, as a reasonable start.

Jeremy Boak, Director
Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
Colorado School of Mines

Viewpoints expressed are mine and do not reflect positions of the Colorado School of Mines