Monday, October 10, 2005


A Look at Oil Shale

Three dollars a gallon is a lot if you've already linked your fortunes to an SUV, and it's no picnic for my Nissan Sentra either. But the real nightmare question lurking in the back of a lot of minds is - can it go to six?

As big and rudely muscular as the US economy is, three-fourths of the world's oil demand is non-American. And good luck standing in the way of Mr. Lee and Mr. Cho as they gain the chance to drive and air condition themselves. So the question of whether we'll be paying six dollars at some point is going to hinge on supply. Saudi princes have recently been acting as coy about their reserves as debutantes about their chastity, and so we in the general public, incluidng bloggers like myself, have begun wondering about alternatives. And you can dream all you want to, but the realistic short to medium-term alternatives all involve alternatives that you can still pour into your tank.

Hence oil shale.

I know what you're going to say. What about thermal depolymerization? Whereby they process garbage and animal biproducts in a manner similar to how crude oil itself is treated - they heat and pressurize it, and then depressurize it at differing rates to produce different oil grades. I'm all for it. It's going to be a welcome, small-scale contributor to our solution. But there's just not going to be enough feedstock to affect the big picture.

Ethanol? Please. How much corn do you want to plant? And like tar sands and coal and gas conversion, the low net energy output means you're running ever faster to produce only marginally more. That didn't work for Alice in Wonderland and it won't for us.

Now, probably around when our children are older than we are, in my inquiring but admittedly layman's opinion, hydrogen produced with excess nuclear capacity may kick in, but until then oil shale is the real trump card for the next generation in terms of large scale production of stuff you can put in your gas tank.

Oil shale is bituminous material containing kerogen that can be heated to 450-500° C in the absence of air to distill it into petroleum. The US Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale reserves places world supply at 1662 billion barrels. 1200 billion barrels of that is in the US.

Point one: We've got 3/4's of it. With apologies to my non-American readers, but that puts the same big fat smile on my face that I trust good news about your nation would put on yours.

And no, you don't have to strip-mine it using West Virginian child labor in a sardonic reprise of a Dickens horror scene. You can convert it in-situ. You lower a heating element into a mineshaft and heat it up. It converts into oil right there in the ground. Then you pump it up. Any non-idiotic regulatory policy would further allow refineries to be built within pipeline range of the shale fields. Are there any retired military bases along oil shale's major Uinta, Green River, Washakie and Piceance basins which runs across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado?

Environmental? The strip mining form of extraction is indeed problematic, because the extracted rock expands after heating and must be disposed, plus a lot of water is involved.

But there's far less footprint with in-situ production. CO2 emissions from the energy used in extraction and refining (oil shale is 4.5% sulphur, double or more heavy crude but less than tar sands) have to be considered and the groundwater exposed to the in-situ heating has to be cooled or managed in some other way. From this standpoint, it is indeed not a sexy, forward-looking solution, but it buys time for technology to advance. Time that we can hope won't be squandered the way the last 30 years - following the wake up call of the 1970's oil shocks - was squandered.

Economical? Royal Dutch/Shell (they've all merged, haven't they?) proclaimed this year that oil shale could be extracted at $30 a barrel. So long as the oil companies are sure it won't drop below that price, and republicans - real republicans - are in office to cut prohibitive regulation that extreme enviros use to circumvent the popular will (when they're nto using the courts to do the same), it will be produced.

For further reading, let me direct you to this post and succeeding comments at futurepundit where energy-savvy experts offer greater expertise than my amateur survey can provide.

Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, describes Americans as doom-eager. He says nice things about us at times as well, but I see his point about our willingness to read today's bad news as signs of the end times. I wrote in opposition to that idea yesterday and in a sense I tried to do the same today.

There is no cause for real alarm, so long as we do not shrink from confidence in our own system, which has brought prosperity to hundreds of millions (simultaneously with a cleaner environment than Old Europe's). No doom awaits us without our consent. With oil shale and other potential sources out there, second-or third best solutions though they are, there is broadly speaking a ceiling on the price of oil.

Just as there is none on human ingenuity.


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