Debates over energy and how best to produce it usually occur when the price of oil spikes to new highs. That’s because the world’s economy runs on energy produced by oil and oil products. Should the world try to find more oil by drilling for it in hitherto untapped places, such as the Alaskan wilderness? Should we try to develop alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear, solar, wind, and other, more esoteric technologies? Should people develop more energy efficient technologies, for instance cars that travel further on less gasoline?
The answer to those questions, to the rational mind, should all be yes. There is also another possible source of energy, the acquisition of which the advance of technology and the price of oil may be about to make possible. It is commonly known as oil shale.
The term is really somewhat misleading as the substance is kerogen, an organic material, trapped inside rock. It is formed over time from plants with the heating and compaction process similar to that which forms petroleum, though not as intense.
The world’s reserves of oil shale are estimated to be from one and a half to over two and a half trillion barrels. The lower number is the amount of the estimated world’s oil reserves. Much of the world’s oil shale exists in the western United States.
The history of attempts to exploit oil shale has been one of great promise but until recently very few results. Oil shale has been used since antiquity as fuel, burned much like coal. In the 1850s, Dr. James Young of Edinburgh, Scotland developed a process of extracting oil from oil shale. Oil from oil shale was produced in Scotland until the 1960s, when oil from conventional sources proved less expensive oil shale and oil from oil shale has been used in Estonia, Australia, and Brazil.
Modern interest in oil shale in the United States began during the energy crises of the 1970s. With heavy subsidies from the United States government, oil companies attempted to develop methods of exploiting oil from oil shale. The method was to mine the oil shale in an open pit style, transport the oil shale to a processing facility, and then process it into oil.
Unfortunately this method proved not to be economically viable. A combination of falling oil prices during the 1980s, unexpected environmental costs, and the costs of mining and transport combined to kill off the nascent oil shale industry in the United States. The last oil company to close up shop on its oil shale operation was Unocal, in 1991.
Recently, Royal Dutch Shell has developed a method of in situ extraction of oil from oil shale that holds promise for an economical method of exploiting the resource. The idea is to drill shafts into the oil bearing rock, drop heaters into the shafts, cook the hydrocarbon product out of the rock at a temperature of about seven hundred degrees, and collect the product as it rises to the surface.
Shell has proven the concept in a small, test plot in 2004-2005. It collected one third natural gas and two thirds light, sweet crude during the test period. After about 1500 barrels of oil were collected, Shell concluded the test.
Shell claims that its method of extracting oil from oil shale would be economical even with oil costing thirty dollars a barrel, less than half of what it costs in late spring of 2006. It yields three and a half units of energy for every unit used in the extraction process. The process recovers ten times the amount of oil from oil shale, of higher quality, than the conventional method of mining, transporting, and processing.
Shell has developed a method to make the process environmentally sound as well. In order to prevent the product from contaminating ground water, an ice barrier is created around the production field. This is done by drilling shafts around the field, pumping refrigerants into the shafts, and freezing the ground water near the shafts.
Will oil shale prove to be part of the solution to high energy prices? Opinion vary and no one wants to repeat the mistakes made in the 1970s and 1980s. Currently the Bureau of Land Management is considering applications from oil companies to exploit oil shale deposits on federal land, under a mandate from the 2005 Energy Act. Among the contenders is Shell, which hopes to have a commercially viable operation using its in situ technology by 2010.
Still, the thought that America may have enough oil within its own borders to provide its own energy needs is a beguiling one. Imagine a day, not so far in the future, when the United States is not only self sufficient for its energy needs, but a net energy exporter. The prospect has profound implications for international geopolitics, particularly in the Middle East.
This doesn’t mean that alternative energy sources need be abandoned. As extensive as the oil shale reserves are, they are still finite. And the energy needs of the world are just going to continue to grow as countries like China and India become industrialized and the growth of technology demands more energy. But technologies like nuclear, fusion, solar, and others could be developed in a more orderly fashion, coming on line as the market place demands, and not as the result of often unwise government mandates, motivated by panic over energy cost spikes or shortages. If things pan out, then the very notion of an energy crisis could become a thing of the past.