Utah and surrounding states are home to a staggering amount of shale oil deposits — 3 trillion barrels, by one estimate. The trick has been developing this resource in a cost-productive and environmentally friendly manner, which has eluded efforts in the past. Given the size of this potential deposit, however, it would be wrong to ignore new opportunities to unlock this puzzle.
Enefit American Oil, an Estonian company, has secured leases for 30,000 acres of oil shale production in Utah, with the intent of producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day. That could accommodate one-third of all of Utah's liquid fuel consumption. In the process, it would also create 1,200 construction jobs to get the project started, as well as 2,000 long-term, high-wage full-time jobs once production actually begins.
Most of this development would be done on private land, using no water for the actual processing of the oil shale and minimal water to suppress dust from the project. What little water is used could be recycled for future use. All this suggests that the benefits of going forward are much greater than the potential drawbacks.
Which is not to ignore the drawbacks. Environmentalists are concerned that any water usage, however limited, would put too much of a drain on local resources. There are also concerns about pollution. But a two-year study has determined that the environmental impact would be relatively slight. As for water, the amount needed is far less than that which would be employed by other technologies such as fracking — a method not being employed in this particular project — and nuclear power, which is now being considered in Utah despite its considerable demands for water.
Yet even if the environmental challenges can be overcome, some question whether additional effort ought to be expended toward any new fossil fuel development, since such projects divert the focus away from developing alternative fuels.
While the world ought to turn its attention to the development of wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative sources for energy, those still are inadequate to meet the needs of the present. One needs only to look to Germany, where people are lamenting the rising fuel costs that result from moving to alternative sources before they are either technologically or economically feasible.
For the foreseeable future, the world will have to rely on energy generated by fossil fuels to meet its expanding demands. Enefit and others are developing innovative new strategies to bring it to them. Utah should welcome those efforts and hope they succeed in unlocking a rich and productive resource.