Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Shale Game (by Phila)

As you probably know, the desert West contains huge deposits of oil shale. This is a sedimentary rock that contains a solid compound called kerogen, which can be refined into a synthetic crude oil. Most of these deposits are on publicly owned land.

There's no good method of extracting shale oil. Currently, the most "promising" method -- the method that is supposed to make the industry economically and environmentally viable, at long last -- involves creating and maintaining an underground ice wall to protect groundwater, and then heating the kerogen-bearing rock in situ:
In the high desert near Rifle, Colo., Shell engineers are burying hundreds of steel rods 2,000 feet underground that will heat the shale to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which Teflon melts.

The heat will be applied for the next four years....
This process releases more greenhouse gases than conventional petroleum production. But in the short term -- which is all we really care about, right? -- the more serious consideration is probably water, the scarcity of which is already increasing conflicts between Western states and towns.

With all this in mind, it's interesting to read this op-ed by Jeff Hartley, who is the director of Utah's Responsible Energy Developers Forum. He was offended by a recent editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune, which criticized the new energy bill's lifting of the moratorium on oil shale leasing in Utah, and he's eager to set the record straight:
[T]echnologies now exist that require little or no process water, minimize surface disturbances and significantly reduce emissions. While some of The Tribune's claims about purported environmental impacts may have been true several decades ago, that is no longer the case.
That's progress for you! Still, I'm willing to bet that the careful phrase "process water" conceals an unpleasant reality; in discussions like these, specificity is almost always intended to mislead. At the very least, he's probably ignoring the water consumption of infrastructure and labor.

Then again, the fact that I allow myself to be troubled by these suspicions proves that I'm a Luddite or worse. Since there are no longer any serious environmental problems with oil shale, it's obvious that opposition to the project can only be based on hatred of civilization
"I've always said [to oil shale critics], 'What are you afraid of?'" [Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah] said. "You're afraid it might work."
Guilty as charged.

Here's the part I find fascinating, given the ongoing battle over water rights:
“There’s a misconception that it’s (oil shale development) all going to be new water, it’s really not,” Kuhn said. “Oil companies have existing valid water rights.” Some of those companies have water rights dating from the 1950s or 1960s"....During a water shortage, water consumptive oil shale extraction could deny Gunnison Basin or San Juan Basin or other water users their water rights if they date from 1970s or 1980s, he said.
Oil shale production will be allowed to proceed on federal lands as of tomorrow. Some members of Congress are talking about reinstating the moratorium in January, just in case anyone was thinking there's not enough at stake in the upcoming election.