Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Faster, Please...

From South End Grounds comes a link to this article by Linda Seeback of the Rocky Mountain News about future oil reserves.

On one small test plot about 20 feet by 35 feet, on land Shell owns, they started heating the rock in early 2004. "Product" - about one-third natural gas, two-thirds light crude - began to appear in September 2004. They turned the heaters off about a month ago, after harvesting about 1,500 barrels of oil.

While we were trying to do the math, O'Connor told us the answers. Upwards of a million barrels an acre, a billion barrels a square mile. And the oil shale formation in the Green River Basin, most of which is in Colorado, covers more than a thousand square miles - the largest fossil fuel deposits in the world.

On the surface, this sounds really good. Too good to be true, actually. But, as Ms. Seebach so aptly put it in her column: "Wow."

According to the article, Shell is very close to putting this to a real test:

[...] Shell has applied for a research and development lease on 160 acres of BLM land, which could be approved by February. That project would be on a large enough scale so design of a commercial facility could begin.

The appeal of extracting oil from oil shale has fluctuated over the years, increasing as each new technique is applied, or as oil prices rise, then dropping with oil prices and/or the inability of the techniques to yield cheap oil. Appeal is on the rise again, needless to say. And if successful, the prospect of that much oil located within our borders is appealing indeed!

The RAND Corporation issued a study dated August 31 that basically agrees with the amount of reserves, and mentioned the lower cost claims made by Shell. They cautioned, however, that proven technology today would be very costly.

The study is titled “Oil Shale Development in the United States: Prospects and Policy Issues.” It indicates that oil production based on older oil shale mining and processing technologies would not be profitable unless crude oil prices consistently stay above at least $70 to $95 per barrel. The price of crude oil jumped past $70 per barrel Aug. 29 in response to Hurricane Katrina. In addition, significant adverse environmental impacts are associated with oil shale mining, above ground processing and disposing of spent shale.

The same process is being studied as applied to heavy oil and natural bitumen. According to this report, small scale testing and computer simulations have been run.

Some history of oil shale may be found here.

Echoing the RAND Corporation's estimated 20 to 30 year timeline until economical production is possible, this article from World Oil details the dispersion of oil shale deposits:
[...] At present, shale oil is not being produced in the US, and large-scale commercial production is not expected for 20 to 30 years under present economic conditions. But it's not for a lack of reserves. According to published World Energy Council (WEC) estimates, nearly 62% of the world's potentially recoverable oil shale resources are concentrated in the US. At year-end 1999, WEC says the US had a possible shale oil reserve approaching 1.0 trillion barrels.

Outside the US, oil shale has been burned directly as a low grade, high ash-content fuel in a few countries such as Estonia. Jordan also possesses a significant quantity of oil shale resources, but no formal development. Oil shales also occur throughout Canada, particularly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where some early mining occurred. Investigations into power plant use have also been made.

Australia is generating the most publicity, with claims from the Australian Geological Survey organization of recoverable and additional shale oil reserves of 37 billion tonnes, or about 260 billion barrels. During the 1970s and ?80s, an exploration program was undertaken by two Australian companies, Southern Pacific Petroleum and Central Pacific Minerals (SPP/CPM). The aim was to find high-quality oil shale suitable for open-pit mining in areas near infrastructure and deepwater ports. The program was successful in finding commercial deposits along the coast of Queensland.

So, like the title of this post says... Faster, Please!

I can see only one drawback to a massive amount of exploitable oil reserves. It only addresses the supply-side of the equation. If we, or any other countries, have access to large amounts of oil, then we may be less inclined to explore alternative energy sources to lessen the demand for oil. Actually, less should be replaced with WILL. Advances in nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal and hydro technology will fall by the wayside without the economic pressure of high oil prices. Major dilemma, there.

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