Shale games


Between 1.2 and 1.8 trillion barrels of oil sit in shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. For years oil companies have been looking for a commercially viable way to unlock all that petroleum, to no avail. "No matter how high the price of crude oil went," Hal Clifford reported for HCN in 2002, "shale oil always seems to cost more." Coloradans learned that lesson the hard way when Exxon abruptly put the brakes on its Colony Oil Shale project in 1982. Some 2,500 jobs disappeared overnight. 

But some dreams never die. In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management issued six oil shale leases, each 160 acres in size, allowing companies to do research and development on federal land. If they discovered an economic way to get the oil out of the ground, they could apply for commercial leases to an additional 4,960 acres each. No company has yet taken that step.

Even so, the BLM announced last week that it was moving forward with three new experimental shale leases in Colorado and Utah. (Exxon is among the companies getting back in the game in Colorado.) The leases now move to the states for review, which could take up to a year and a half and will include public comment periods, according to the LA Times.

This round of leases is stricter than the last, giving each leasee an option on only 480 extra acres if they can prove commercial viability. But that's of little comfort to environmentalists, who are watching a broader boom in unconventional fuels already underway with trepidation.

Any way you look at it, producing fuel from oil shale and other unconventional sources, like tar sands, which could soon be mined in Utah, is an intensive process. The "thirsty nature of oil shale" is undeniably daunting for the parched West. And the energy it will require is of global concern. A 2009 commentary published in the Denver Post pointed to a 2008 Department of Interior analysis that found "that ten new coal plants that could generate up to 121 million tons of carbon dioxide per year would be needed to power oil shale development." It would make little sense to use natural gas to power the development instead, according to the commentary's authors. "Why run busses, for instance, on fuel derived from oil shale when they are already burning natural gas?"

"Every country has an Achilles Heel that could make climate goals unattainable," they continued. "In Canada, it is tar sands production. In the United States, it could be oil shale."

Cally Carswell is High Country News' assistant editor.
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