No thanks, Estonia

 

At any given moment, 20 million people are video chatting with friends and relatives in distant lands. Skype, the ingenious software that makes this possible, was developed in Estonia, a tiny nation in northern Europe, hard on the Baltic Sea.

Ocean-going tribes, sometimes called “pagan raiders,” have lived in Estonia for thousands of years. During World War II, Estonia was invaded, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, before being overrun again by the Soviets at the end of the war. The country did not regain its independence until 1991.

Today, Estonians boast of having the world’s first “digital democracy” -- Internet voting -- and the lowest debt levels in Europe. It is said that a person can open a laptop in an Estonian forest and have faster download speeds than are available in most American living rooms.

Although Estonians revel in their newfound freedom, their society remains captive to a Stone Age energy system, one based on primitive and polluting technologies that it hopes to export to the United States. Estonia has no oil, coal or natural gas; what it does have is the world’s richest deposits of oil shale, stubborn rocks that only surrender their hydrocarbons if heated to 900 degrees.

Estonians burn oil shale in enormous power plants as if it were coal. They bake millions of tons each year in large ovens, or retorts, to produce fuel for ships. At one time, they used oil shale to power their locomotives.

Over the past 100 years, the Estonian oil shale industry has mined 1 billion tons of shale, polluting the nation’s land, air and water in the process. Today, a staggering 90 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide comes from shale burning. In northeastern Estonia, towering mounds of gray shale ash are visible from space. Locals refer to these barren hills, which cover 50 square miles, as the “Estonian Alps.” On one of them they’ve built a ski area. Another hosts a wind farm. Petroleum coke buried in a third alp spontaneously ignited two years ago.

As other nations embrace clean energy, Estonia continues to mine and burn 20,000 pounds of oil shale per person per year. Now, it hopes to export this expertise to America, which is troubling. Climate activists often say that Canadian tar sands represent the largest single threat to a livable climate. That’s incorrect. Far more carbon is buried in American oil shale than in Alberta tar sands.

Although there are trillions of tons of oil shale scattered around the planet, two-thirds of it is found in Colorado, Wyoming and eastern Utah, where a company called Enefit, which is wholly owned by the Estonian government, has assembled a 30,000-acre leasehold.

Over the next decade, Enefit plans to spend $5 billion building the world’s largest oil shale mine and at least four large retorts in which to bake synthetic crude oil out of crushed stone. We’ve tried –– and so far failed –– to make oil shale profitable in the United States; will Enefit’s engineers succeed in wresting energy from stubborn rocks that have defeated generations of Americans?

There are problems: The oil shale in Utah is not nearly as rich as that in Estonia. Indeed, there’s more energy in a ton of dried pig manure than in a ton of Utah’s shale. It’s also not clear whether American shale can be successfully processed using Enefit’s complicated machines.

But it all goes according to plan, by 2024, the company hopes to blast, mine, haul, crush and retort about 30 million tons of shale rocks each year –- about 5,000 dump-truck loads each day.

Many uncertainties remain. Is there enough water to support this heavy industry? How will Enefit reclaim the vast mounds of spent shale it will produce? Does burning oil shale make any sense in a state so blessed with untapped sunlight? So far, politicians in Utah are celebrating Enefit’s arrival. But if the regional drought lingers and Lake Powell continues to fall, this “burn, baby, burn” mindset may change.

The Estonian government has agreed to subsidize Enefit’s efforts to export its technology to Jordan, Morocco and the United States. Not all of Estonia’s citizens are pleased. “Why should the taxpayer risk half a billion kroons in a Middle-Eastern desert,” an Estonian mining engineer asks. “Does it really make sense to process 100,000 tons of American oil shale to produce 10,000 tons of liquid fuel?”

Excellent questions, but what is a “kroon,” you might ask. Kroons were once the local currency in Estonia. Then, when the country adopted the Euro, the old banknotes were compressed into bricks and burned for heating fuel. Smarter to burn those, in my view, than to burn oil shale.

Randy Udall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about energy in Carbondale, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921