Every time energy prices spike, oil companies (and their allies in Washington) start talking up oil shale. It happened just before World War I, it happened after the 1973 oil embargo, and it’s happening again now. Oil shale, the hucksters tell us, is the answer to America’s energy problems. Huge deposits of the stuff lie just below the surface of empty federal lands. It has the potential to provide us hundreds of billions of barrels of homegrown oil. It’s readily available, it’s domestic, and it’s ready for American workers to extract.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
In the reality-based world, the economics only work if oil is selling near $100 per barrel and, even then, extracting the oil shale and converting it to a usable product (one that can heat our homes or power our industrial facilities) raises some serious environmental concerns.
Start with the fact that oil shale is just sedimentary rock. That means that the only proven method for extracting it is to dig it up using traditional surface mining techniques – like strip mining. That, of course, triggers the well-documented stresses on wildlife, forest communities, aquatic resources, and air quality.
Then comes the nasty problem of converting oil shale to commercially useful oil. Oil shale gets its (inaccurate) name from the fact that it contains significant amounts of the “proto-petroleum” kerogen. The kerogen in oil shale can be converted to petroleum and its useful derivatives, but to get the kerogen out of the rock, the rock has to be heated to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. And the only way to get the rock that hot is to burn other fossil fuels like oil or gas. No need to elaborate on the obvious air and water quality concerns there.
And at the end of the day, we need to think about what to do with all of the rock that’s been squeezed dry. The Department of Energy estimates that U.S. oil shale deposits will only deliver between 10 and 50 barrels of oil per ton of rock, a calculation that does not even include the overburden that must be removed to access the ore. Since the process of mining the ore and crushing it before it is heated to extract oil “fluffs” the rock, the waste stream at an oil shale or tar sands mine is of significantly larger volume than can be simply placed back into the mine from which the ore was originally extracted. Some communities have used the excess waste to pave roads, but there is evidence to suggest that this might cause toxic pollutants to leach into surrounding soils.
Since oil shale seems to be such a marginally viable resource, why bring it up? Because the Bush Administration, in another ill-advised, last-minute regulation, has decided it’s time to start getting the federal government in the business of supporting oil shale in a big way.
A week ago Monday, the Bureau of Land Management announced that 1.9 million acres of federally owned land in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado will soon be open for oil shale development.
As Matt Madia points out over at Reg•Watch, BLM and the White House moved quickly to finalize this decision before the Congressional Review Act could have given Congress a chance to weigh in on the “midnight regulation:”
BLM proposed the rule in July and, after the public comment period closed, began moving with great haste to ensure the rule would be final by the time President Bush leaves office. On Nov. 3, BLM sent a draft of a final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for the customary review period. OMB approved the rule Nov. 7 — just four days later. The average review time is about two months.
But what’s more disturbing than the speed with which OMB reviewed this major new program is that the federal government is seriously considering oil shale as a legitimate piece of our federal energy policy. Unlike the early 1900s, or even the 1970s, solar, wind, and geothermal power are viable large-scale energy sources at the same price as oil shale. There’s just no reason for investing any more resources in carbon-intensive energy like oil shale.