July 10, 2010

The Case Against Oil Shale--and For Other Alternatives to Oil

Popular Mechanics debunks ten "pernicious" energy myths "that could derail our progress—and one of them connects with Colorado:

Myth No. 8: U.S. Shale can Provide Energy Independence

Shale oil hasn't gotten too much attention since the oil crisis of the 1970s. But today, proponents are once again pointing out that there are more than a trillion barrels of oil locked in the shale deposits of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, more than all the proven crude-oil reserves on the planet. That would be enough to meet current U.S. oil demand for an entire century.

The problem, then and now, lies in the financial and ecological costs of extracting the oil. Shale oil naturally occurs in the form of kerogens, solid, waxy substances with a texture similar to that of ChapStick. Once the kerogens are heated to over 500 F, they exude hydrocarbons, which must be treated with hydrogen in order to be processed into usable fuel—a highly energy-intensive process that releases large amounts of CO2.

And just to get at these kerogens, energy companies would have to mine and process millions of tons of shale from the earth—leaving behind toxic heavy metals and sulfates that could seep into groundwater. "There's a water contamination issue," says Olayinka Ogunsola, an engineer at the Department of Energy. "There's also a land reclamation issue—[mining] would create a lot of disturbance in the area." Mining and processing shale also require vast amounts of water—producing 2.5 million barrels of shale oil per day would require 105 million to 315 million gallons of water daily. That might be the biggest deal breaker of all for parched western states.

I have had a hard time making that argument to people from the wetter end of the country, who see the numbers on potential barrels of shale oil and simplistically say, "Problem solved"

But read the whole thing—these are not green vs. growth choices. (Via Glenn Reynolds.)


Anonymous said...

Well I'm from a place that most would consider to be on the 'wet end' - but... I'm also a hydrogeologist and a geochemist. Google up 'acid mine drainage' for an idea of some the problems that occur when you take thousands of tons of minerals that are only thermodynamically stable under anaerobic conditions, bring them to the surface of the earth and expose them to water. In the old days - the company I worked for could easily make millions on this kind of thing.

Seriously bad stuff. Add in problems with reclamation - what the hell DO you do with an *entire freaking mountain* that's been stripped to it's geologic skivvies? And you've got something that's probably still going to be a really really bad idea for your great grandchildren.

Galen Geer said...

Chas, I remember the push for shale oil and the wee, little voices that said "this ain't right." At least this time the voices seem to be a little louder. glg

Steve Bodio said...

Biofeul and oil shale-- two dumbest energy ideas ever invented!