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Shell pilot oil shale project in Colorado


Oil shale and the current energy crisis


Shell pilot project

I’m going to shift away from water issues slightly.
On Sunday I read a rant about oil shale on a midwest blog (Sorry, I don’t have the link). The author said that he was, “sick of the Left,” blocking energy projects. He mentioned the estimated trillions of barrels of oil locked up in oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. As I read his post I quickly understood that he thought that oil shale technology was far enough along that the nation is being denied its benefits both for lower energy prices and independence from foreign oil. 

In case there are other readers out there that are thinking along similar lines I feel compelled to let you know what I know about the current situation.

As to water (I bet you knew that I’d get in a water reference somehow). No company has yet demonstrated a commercial oil shale project. Therefore, it is impossible to quantify how much water will be needed to produce the oil shale. We do know that Shell has been buying water rights for years now and I assume that the other companies involved are also doing this. I’ve seen estimates of total use by oil shale of 300,000 acre feet per year. Coincidentally, that is pretty close to estimates of the remaining water for the Upper Basin States (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming) in the Colorado River Basin under the Colorado River Compact. In other words, oil shale development may take all the water that is left to develop in Colorado. No water for new agriculture, a growing population or other industries such as electrical generation or biofuels. Colorado’s population is expected to grow by 3 million over the next few decades and we’re hoping to keep agricultural dryups to a minimum since they provide $16 billion a year to the economy.

In situ extraction is the technology that is mentioned most often now. The two projects that I’ve read about are those by Shell and Schlumberger. The in-situ recovery process heats the shale, kerogen (the type of hydrocarbon in the shale) it is hoped, will then pool, quickly enough to be commercial, at the bottom of the formation, so that it can be pumped to the surface. Shell plans to use electricity to heat the rock while Schlumberger recently purchased radio frequency technology for heating the rock. Both methods require electricity and would require electrical generation nearby to level costs. In addition, Shell plans to contain the kerogen by utilizing freeze walls — using a refrigeration process requiring electricity to freeze groundwater — to prevent migration into groundwater. As I said this is highly speculative although Shell has built a pilot project.

I spoke to a Shell representative, Tracy Boyd, this morning. He told me that commercial production is years away. Still to be solved are technical, scientific, environmental and political issues. That’s pretty much everything except the market. No one knows what it will cost per gallon delivered to the refinery and how the current oil market will respond. If current oil prices are largely speculative then the market may react to undermine oil shale. I believe that oil shale’s chances in the market will improve markedly after we reach peak oil.

Colorado is hardly holding back in our role of providing energy for the country. Natural gas wells are being drilled at a pace where local government and the state cannot keep up with the impacts to infrastructure as workers move in to fill the positions in the oil patch. Hundreds of mining permits have been issued for uranium mining over the last few years. Wind generators are sprouting like weeds in the northeastern part of the state. Colorado’s farmers are producing corn for ethanol and we’re building new ethanol plants. Active projects exist for solar, in fact, Denver International Airport is closing in on a new solar plant to provide some of their needs. Geothermal potential is being actively evaluated around the state, primarily in Chaffee County.

So to my blog friend I want to say, “Please don’t take the easy rhetorical way out by blaming the ‘Left‘.” Our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, are pretty much all supportive of oil shale development. There are just too many unknowns right now. Back in the 80s oil shale was going to be the next best thing. Exxon pulled out of their project over a weekend leaving economic devastation in Garfield County. We Coloradans are happy to sell you energy. We just want responsible development so that we can still catch a trout or two, bag that trophy elk or perhaps just enjoy the land through photos we take as we hike the high mesa country where the oil shale is, after the oil runs out. It would also be cool if the development of oil shale didn’t destroy groundwater quality and wildlife habitat.

Colorado would like some company in our role as “National Energy Sacrifice Zone.”

I have two suggestions for the nation. My blog friend is a citizen of Wisconsin where they have an abundance of fresh water. Why not have the Great Lakes states share in the production of oil shale by building a water pipeline to the area, instead of locking up water under the “Great Lakes Basin Compact?” Make sure that the purpose of the compact is for orderly development of the water, not to lock it up in the basin.

A second suggestion: Why don’t you press your congressional representatives to finance solar in Arizona and California (the best spot for solar on the planet)? Part of their commitment must be to ensure that the transmission lines for the power can be built. The first transmission lines could run to Colorado for oil shale development where it will help with the expected loss of hydropower and replace any new coal-fired plants that are in the works. With access to solar the oil shale projects in Colorado won’t require new coal-fired plants. Everyone pretty much agrees now that the planet doesn’t need the CO2 and we don’t need to lose any more miners and mountaintops to this dirty fuel. In addition, you would be adding in the real costs to the environment for the production of oil shale. Let’s call it zero-carbon development. This includes the opportunity cost of developing and implementing large scale solar. Let’s use oil shale profit to finance solar and wind.

As usual. The reality is not so “black and white”, “you’re either with us or against us,” or “us against them,” is it? 

For more info: I follow Colorado water issues at Coyote Gulch.
John Orr 
John is a Denver native, who graduated from Metropolitan State College and attended the University of Montana Graduate School of Business. He works for the city of Denver, Department of Public Works, Wastewater Management Division. John is an avid hiker, backpacker and — in the days before a knee replacement and hip replacement — climber of 14ers. He created his website, Coyote Gulch, to track water issues, in 2002. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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