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View Ted Zukoski's blog posts
20 January 2010, 10:22 AM
Oil shale boosters' claims still don't hold water
Wyoming badlands on the block for oil shale. (c) Erik Molvar. Used with permission.

Why should we develop oil shale? Or, more precisely, what are the best arguments for scraping tens of thousands of acres of public land and using billions of gallons of scarce water and uncounted gigawatts of electricity to bake oil from rocks? 

Jeremy Boak, of the Colorado School of Mines, has two answers. Both are wrong. 

Some background on Mr. Boak. He's director of Mines' Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research, cutely known as "COSTAR." As the school proudly announced when COSTAR was born, the center "is funded by three major oil companies, Total Exploration and Production, Shell Exploration and Production, and ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company." So you see who he has to please.

First, Mr. Boak argues that oil shale development isn't a problem because, contrary to some enviros' claims, development would not occur "'in the midst of some of the wildest and most scenic land in America, much of it in protected parks and wilderness areas,' but rather in range land administered by the BLM." 

Mr. Boak's argument appears to be that "the range," that iconic American landscape immortalized in song and story, is the right place to bulldoze flat. 

Well, pardon me. Some of us think western Colorado, southern Wyoming and northeast Utah are pretty scenic... Like the Roan Plateau, parts of which have been proposed for wilderness protection, and which the Bush administration has opened to oil shale development (as well as natural gas drilling)...  And like the Adobe Town area in Wyoming, pictured above, also ready for sale for oil shale.

And more than scenery is at stake for these wild landscapes.

Oil shale will have far more surface impacts even than oil and gas development, which is already hurting elk, antelope, and sage grouse populations in the Rockies. Oil and gas development requires roads and drill pads, but not occupation of every surface acre where the pool of petroleum is found. Current oil shale technologies, on the other hand, will require essentially strip mining, or the development of industrial shale cookers on top of just about every acre where the shale is found.

So you can kiss the range goodbye—its scenery, its wildlife, its wildnessif oil shale development moves in.

Second, Mr. Boak says that the greens are just whining when they complain about the massive amounts of water that will be necessary to turn rock into oil. As he puts it, if folks "are concerned about oil shale using too much water, what do they make of biofuels, for which estimates by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory exceed oil shale estimates by a factor of ten or more?"

This is an apples-to-carburators comparison. It ignores the fact that where water is matters. Water in the arid West is in short supply. Thirsty oil shale will require millions of gallons a dayat someone else's expense: ranchers, farmers, wildlife, towns and cities (including the greater Denver metro area). That's why the Denver Water Boardnot exactly a bunch of flaming tree-huggersis extremely worried what oil shale development will mean for the Colorado River, and for the drinking water the Front Range needs. The last big unappropriated river in Coloradothe Yampamay soon be tapped and dammed for oil shale development. But no one is talking about using millions of gallons of water in western Colorado to turn the federal public lands into cornfields for ethanol. The alternative is that the Yampa runs free, and wildlife, ranchers and newcomers still have some water to drink.

Admittedly, biofuels have their problems, including water use. But that doesn't make the giant sucking sound that is oil shale development slurping down the West's scarce water any more attractive. 

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As far as I know, a complete eMergy (yes, with an "M") analysis clearly shows that on a commercial basis, oil from oil shale yields an absurdly negative net eMergy. That means that when the quality of the energy (not simply its value-neutral quantity) is taken into account, far more oil-equivalent energy is used up in production than is finally recovered from the shale (the same applies to biofuels from crops, but it's just the opposite for conventional oil). It's just a matter of holistic economics (something that seems to escape most engineers); in a nutshell, extracting oil from shale simply drives our eMergy balance into the red. And, to be perfectly clear, absolutely everything required for mining and processing of oil shale (including the ecosystems that are destroyed) has an oil-equivalent energy measure (its eMergy) to be accounted. So, unless some amazing technological breakthrough has occured in the last few years turning the eMergy balance completely around, extracting oil from oil shale remains just about the most outrageous energy boondoggle going. What a senseless waste of valuable resources.

I think you need to take a look are ecoshale.com.

The process they use has very little water input (almost none)

Very nice reply, Ted!

"The others" don't appear to consider Earth stewardship factors which might be considered social, aesthetic, or spiritually based. I got mine, and let the devil take the hindmost...

Mark

It is a bit hard to decide where to begin responding to the inflammatory rhetoric in this commentary. It is unclear where the author gets his information on oil shale, but he certainly is out of the mainstream of technical understanding on oil shale. "Bulldozing it flat" is certainly not the likely approach to oil shale production in Colorado, and the beautiful part of the Roan Plateau is not the part of the Piceance Basin of real interest to the companies investigating oil shale production, not, at this time, is any part of Wyoming. Oil shale production will impact the land it occurs on, but its footprint is likely to be smaller than current oil & gas development because of the high productivity of each acre from which the oil would be produced. As to where the water to be used for energy production is located, it is by no means clear where biofuel production will occur, nor is it clear how much water will actually be used for oil shale production. I am not sure Denver's eagerness to take West Slope water should be considered any more legitimate than oil company's intention to use water they already own water rights to.

The oil companies that sponsor our work have never applied pressure to portray oil shale in anything but an honest light, and to assert otherwise is insulting. As is the implication that I referred to anyone as "enviros" or said that "the greens are just whining" about anything. If Mr. Zukoski actually wants to learn current information about oil shale, perhaps he too would benefit from attending the next Oil Shale Symposium, as we offer complimentary registration to the press.

Mr. Boak: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Perhaps my rhetoric was a bit barbed, and I apologize for that. And I appreciate your offer to attend the next Oil Shale Symposium gratis. I may take you up on that.

But a quick response to some of your points.

You say that it's insulting to imply that oil companies may care what is said by those working for COSTAR. I did not mean to insult you or Total Exploration and Production, Shell Exploration and Production, and ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company who fund the Center you work for. However, it doesn't hurt readers to know where the money for COSTAR comes from so they can reach their own conclusions. Just as readers will know that I work for Earthjustice, and take that into consideration.

Of course, the ultimate test is not where the writer's money comes from but whether what's written holds water. So let's turn to that.

Re: the Roan Plateau and Wyoming. You say "the beautiful part of the Roan Plateau is not the part of the Piceance Basin of real interest to the companies investigating oil shale production, no[r], at this time, is any part of Wyoming." I was responding to your point that no "scenic" lands would be damaged by oil shale development. I believe this is (a) wrong; and (b) misses the point.

First, it's wrong because scenic lands ARE on the block for oil shale. Congress and the Bush Administration, at the urging of industry, opened 2 million acres to oil shale leasing across the West—including parts of the Roan Plateau and Adobe Town in Wyoming. One can only assume that industry pushed for such a broad opening of lands to leasing because they wanted the option to develop on these lands. Gov. Freudenthal expressed his grave concerns with oil shale development in Wyoming. http://www.propublica.org/feature/bush-rule-on-oil-shale-highlights-part.... Conservationists and others urged the Department of the Interior to exclude such areas for their wildness, wilderness character and scenery, but DOI did not.

I'd love to find that you and I (and, perhaps industry) can agree that some areas of America's public lands where oil shale could be developed should be off limits to such development because they are simply too scenic—or otherwise valuable for wildlife, water, or the like. But in 2008, DOI made the decision—with industry backing—to open ALL public lands with significant oil shale potential to oil shale lease applications. So all these lands are at risk. While you say that the Roan and Wyoming are not of "real interest" to industry, they were of enough interest to push to keep them open for development.

Second, I believe the scenery argument misses the point because whether the Piceance Basin is "scenic" or not—and one man's scenery may be another man's industrial sacrifice zone—the Piceance has important values that oil shale development will degrade. BLM lands in the Piceance are ground zero for oil shale development, with 5 research leases already in place which could lead to 25,000 acres of oil shale development. It's also home to 57,000 mule deer and 50,000 elk, and contains a significant sage grouse leks (mating grounds). See an AP article from yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/01/20/business/AP-US-Colorado-Wildl.... The Colorado Wildlife Federation recently released a report detailing these and other wildlife values of the Piceance Basin, and labeled oil shale—together with the ongoing natural gas boom—a threat to these values. See http://coloradowildlife.org/ui/images/public/uploads/AreWeLosingOurWildl.... Scenic or not, piling oil shale development on top of gas drilling already going on in the Piceance will threaten the ecological integrity of these public lands.

Re: your assertion that oil shale's development "is likely to be smaller than current oil & gas development because of the high productivity of each acre from which the oil would be produced." Tell that to the oil shale boosters who use phrases like "the Saudi Arabia of oil shale" to describe the play, and who claim there are trillions of barrels of oil to be baked from the rock. These folks are not going small. They are pushing for the whole enchilada, all 2 million acres of public land. And baking the rock requires grading, construction, and occupation of the surface for years, with vehicles and people coming and going, and a whole infrastructure—including power plants—not needed for oil and gas development. The land occupied will be "destroyed or disturbed" and rendered effectively useless to wildlife "for decades." That's what BLM said in its programmatic EIS on oil shale, starting at page 4-73.

Re: water. You say "it is by no means clear where biofuel production will occur." My point was that water is scarce in oil shale country in Colorado, Wyoming in Utah, and that it's not fair to compare oil shale use there with biofuel production somewhere else. It's a pretty good bet that BLM will not lease two million acres of public lands to grow corn for biofuel on the Colorado Plateau. If you know different, I'd love to hear about it.

You also say: "I am not sure Denver's eagerness to take West Slope water should be considered any more legitimate than oil company's intention to use water they already own water rights to." Agreed. The problem is that some river systems in the oil shale target zone are already groaning under the burden of providing water to Denver or other growing communities. Add a hugely thirsty industry on top of that—one that has water rights that it has yet to exercise but hopes to soon - and the fish and wildlife that rely on these rivers will be literally higher and drier than otherwise. Another straw on the camel's back won't help these ecosystems. For more on that, see Western Resource Advocates' excellent 2009 report "Water on the Rocks." http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org/land/wotrreport/index.php.

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