My view: A real discussion about oil shale

By Jeremy Boak

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Oil-shale rock burns on its own once lit with a blow torch.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

It is not surprising to find political activist Randy Udall holding forth on oil shale again, and repeating the same erroneous nonsense that he has put forward for years in Colorado ("Utah's oil shale really is fool's gold," My View, Nov. 28.)

Putting forward inefficient, out-of-date technology as a thought(less) experiment doesn't make sense.

Neither Red Leaf nor Enefit proposes to burn oil shale. The organic matter in oil shale is so much richer in hydrogen than any coal that its best purpose is to make liquid fuel from it, which is what those companies propose to do.

To proclaim that companies have been trying for decades and failed is just an exaggeration. The primary reason for the sporadic efforts to produce shale oil is economic not technical.

Production of shale oil has continued in Estonia and China for decades because the economic conditions were right for it.

Oil shale is only the most misunderstood energy source for those who refuse to learn anything about it beyond data that support their attempts to oppose its development. Udall asserts that 1,200 square miles ought to be enough land, but fails to acknowledge that the BLM has just removed more than 90 percent of the richest resource of oil shale from consideration, and left in tens of thousands of acres that have such lean oil shale it will be unlikely ever to be developed.

The GAO's entirely non-technical review of out-of-date water estimates can hardly be considered a reasonable source for information on water use. The one to three barrels of water required to produce a barrel of shale oil compares favorably with the four to eight barrels to produce a two-liter bottle of sweetened cola, and the 10 to 100 for a barrel of biofuel.

The energy return on investment is also uniformly greater than that for corn ethanol, which continues to receive favorable treatment from the government. Anyone who asserts a negative return has not reviewed the technical data on the subject.

It is gratifying to have Udall express his approval for continued development of the Bakken Formation and other shale formations by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. However, history teaches us that no single source (solar, wind and biofuel included) is likely to provide us the energy we need over the next several generations.

Oil shale should not be precluded from consideration on political grounds. Opponents and supporters both have their tired slogans; for example, "the energy of the future and always will be."

A real conversation about the pros and cons of oil shale is stifled when every acknowledgement of real challenges by supporters is turned into the excuse to shut it down by opponents.

Jeremy Boak is the director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines.

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