(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
Oil shale is the ‘fuel of the future,’ and it always will be.
-Some Colorado Wise Guy from Way, Way Back When
This past Tuesday Royal Dutch Shell—for decades considered the leader in oil shale research—made a surprising, although familiar, announcement regarding its ‘unconventional resources’ priorities moving forward. It would not include oil shale in Colorado. From the industry blog 'FuelFix:'
Shell is abandoning its decade-long quest to commercially extract shale oil from Colorado, leaving just one major company betting big on the future of that unconventional crude in America. Shell Oil Co. late Tuesday confirmed it was giving up its Mahogany project in Colorado after investing tens of millions of dollars and 31 years on the endeavor, to focus on other opportunities and producing assets. Chevron Corp., made a similar decision in February 2012, when it said it would abandon its own federal oil shale lease in Colorado’s Piceance Basin.
And from Upstream Online:
Shell ends Mahogany oil shale project
"More Oil Than Saudi Arabia"
Oil shale is not oil. It is not 'shale oil' (pdf) like what is fracked for in the Eagle Ford, Niobrara or Bakken. It is not conventional oil that you get with a vertical well and pumpjack. Its a rock. A precursor to petroleum. With millions of years to go in the geologic ovens of the Earth, it may one day turn into the much sought liquid to frack and extract. But despite a century of effort–and a history of scandal, grand promises (pdf) and devastating let-downs–it has never ever been a profitable fuel source.
Nonetheless, dreams of everlasting oil are enticing to both those that want more public resources, and to those that want to hand them out, as proudly explained by one of them (or his staff, at taxpayer expense) on his congressional (i.e. taxpayer funded) website:
Rep. Doug Lamborn’s proposal to open up 125,000 acres of public land to oil shale development passed the full U.S. House of Representatives Thursday.
Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, introduced the PIONEERs Act because he says the Obama administration has slowed oil and gas exploration in public lands. The bill passed 237 to 187 and 20 Democrats voted yes, though none from Colorado.
(Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, tried to strike Lamborn’s bill yesterday but that amendment failed late last night.)
Lamborn’s bill was earlier packaged with a couple of other pieces of legislation as pathways to fund the transportation bill, but the non-partisan CBO said oil shale is not yet developed and Lamborn’s legislation has zero revenue value.
Lamborn believes it’s important anyway.
Snake Oil Shale-men & Their Gullible Friends
And it was just not even a couple of short years ago that the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution spawned from a secret back door meeting in Vernal Utah between oil shale insiders and local government officials. The public and the media were not invited. Mesa County passed a nearly identical resolution in the same timeframe. One of the organizers of that effort in Colorado was Tom Jankovsky the eagerest of an over-eager bunch of drill-, dig-, and develop-happy- commissioners from Garfield County.
When astute citizens discovered the unlawful shenanigans and filed a lawsuit against the GarCo commission, a hasty retreat and retrenching occurred. But the message that the oil shale insiders wanted conveyed—transmitted faithfully through western Colorado (and Utah) elected officials—was still made: that (along with all manner of other silly claims) oil shale “has been proven beyond a doubt to be technologically and economically feasible.”
Silly claims: Given the history of this rock—not oil—that includes unknown environmental risks and which has never been economically developed despite a hundred years of effort. But it’s not surprising. Because there have always been true believers in oil shale, just as there have always been those that seek to profit from them.
There have also been numerous companies like Exxon, and Chevron and Shell that have given it a serious, highly scientific and technologically adept effort; only to each and every one pull up stakes, pack up, and leave. Thus the true believers have had their hopes repeatedly crushed like marlstone in a retort by repeated failures of entrepreneurs, governments, and energy companies (large and small) to ‘unlock’ liquid oil from the ‘rock that burns.’ (ExxonMobile–of 'Black Sunday' infamy has recently re-engaged in oil shale research on one of the BLM's R & D leases, so at least one major is keeping some hope alive, at least for the time-being).
But just as the more rational analysts have been steadily skeptical of oil shale and its slick salesmen over the years (even as they carefully watch serious efforts to solve the enigma of how to profitably perform the alchemy that turns rock to oil); its starry-eyed boosters have remained plentiful nonetheless, if for no other reason than there is a lot of rock in the Green River Formation. So the first articles that hit—on Tuesday, expressed the dismay of oil shale's most ardent acolytes, such as Dennis Webb's in the Grand Junction Sentinel:
Shell shock: Rio Blanco oil shale project axed
“It’s very discouraging to see Shell leave because they’ve been the stalwarts in this business for a couple of decades really,” said Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association industry group.
“Whether it’s the death knell for the oil shale industry we’ll have to wait and see,” he said
But by Wednesday the Snake Oil Shale-men had already moved in, to re-spin the story and reassure the boosters and true-believers: "Yes! Your faith, investment and innocent belief are all still warranted and needed—if we are to defeat the scary people and live in that bright Promised Land of Unlimited Petroleum."
So on Day 2, the Sentinel ran the other side of the story, also by Dennis Webb. With the message that we should 'Fear Not!'
Shell shutdown doesn’t shake oil shale industry
Jeremy Boak, director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, said the last he heard Shell has more than 200 people working on oil shale in Jordan. Worldwide, it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on oil shale, he said.
“They’re clearly not abandoning oil shale as a concept. They’re just deciding that Colorado is not the place they want to do it right now even though it’s (home to) the world-class resource.”
Forcing the Invisible Hand
Nothing in Royal Dutch Shell's statement, or from others that have decided to quit pursuing oil shale, blames anything but business for the decision. There are more economical resources to develop that offer better returns on capital. Shell has been readjusting its holdings worldwide, to focus more on shale oil–the liquid fracked from rock–because its more profitable. Chevron made the same decision, for the same reasons, a few years ago, as the second Sentinel article notes:
Chevron spokeswoman Cary Baird said she doesn’t believe her company raised regulatory concerns as an issue when it made its oil shale decision. Rather, it was just a matter of prioritizing what opportunities to invest financial and human resources in at a global level, she said, somewhat echoing Shell’s reasoning.
“There are difficulties occasionally in getting good, qualified people to work on different projects and when you have a global portfolio it makes it more complicated,” she said.
Shell’s decision comes as companies are using hydraulic fracturing to produce growing amounts of natural gas and oil. Shell just this week identified a location for a $12.5 billion natural-gas-to-liquids facility it hopes to build in Louisiana.
The industry blog FuelFix tells the same story:
The moves come against the backdrop of a surge in recoverable oil reserves that are easier to extract from dense rock formations in North Dakota, Texas and other states using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. By contrast, oil shale has defied decades of industry efforts to find a commercially viable way to distill crude from the oily fine-grained sedimentary rock found primarily on federal land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
“The energy market has evolved since we first started this research in 1981,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh, noting the company’s pursuit of liquids-rich shale opportunities and its long-term interests in natural gas, including potential plans to build a $12.5 billion plant in Louisiana to transform natural gas into transportation fuels.
“Shell has a large portfolio of opportunities, and each one competes for capital,” she added. “Managing the portfolio means decisions will be taken to ensure the right balance of both near-term and long-term opportunities.”
All the same, and despite verbal fealty to the 'Unfettered Free Market' when crafting talking points to inspire the gullible, the suspect shale's shills have no interest in telling the obvious, even if the principals themselves admit it. Instead, on cue, the Snake Oil Shale-men cry out that the government has been over-regulating:
Salazar Rules Blamed for Shell’s Departure
Royal Dutch Shell was one of the most successful companies in the state in its efforts to develop a cost-efficient technique to extract oil from shale rock. But the final act of Ken Salazar as Interior secretary earlier this year to rewrite industry rules left companies in limbo with undeterminable royalty rates, and blocked them from obtaining leases for a majority of federal lands that hold two trillion barrels of recoverable oil.
Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research and a former senior staff aide on Capitol Hill, said Salazar consistently opposed every effort to extract oil shale from the rich fields of Colorado, when Salazar served as Colorado’s Senator and after joining the Obama administration as Interior Secretary.
“Mission accomplished, Ken Salazar,” Kish said.
And on Day 3, right on schedule, the astroturf echoes begin. Some nearly touting the gentle regulatory framework of the Monarchy of Jordan as reason the poor multinational, world's third largest oil company, had to up and leave Obama's Green-Occupied Colorado. And one letter writer even ominously concludes:
Guess we better keep that aircraft carrier in the eastern med to protect the energy supply that the BLM just exported there.
So although the companies themselves are clear that market forces are encouraging them to move on, the hacks shill otherwise, that environmentalists and Obama are to blame. Other Snake Oil Shale-men point to the millions in national treasure that the King of Jordan is giving to oil companies to subsidize oil shale as policy the U.S. should emulate.
The Dirtiest Energy
Its hard for oil shale to shake its image as the dirtiest of energies. It requires massive amounts of energy in production, and unknown quantities of water; it involves wide-scale surface impacts and scarring; and it would result in lots of carbon emissions at every stage, including coming out of the tailpipe should it ever actually make it into a gas-tank.
But there is a lot of it. And so oil shale research goes on in Colorado. And projects are continuing in Utah—where the resource is shallower (but less rich). One of these is being developed by the Estonian government-owned (i.e. 'socialistic') Eesti Energia, which has been working on a pilot project on Utah state-owned lands for several years. Despite numerous set backs, Enefit American Oil the Eesti American subsidiary, claims it remains optimistic.
Estonia has burned oil shale for heat and electricity for a century—and their scarred landscape covered with mountains of slag, and the poor air quality threatening large parts of Europe are a result. A poor record and history of bad government investments in oil shale has a trail of scandal of its own. Undaunted, Eesti hopes to export its 'expertise' to America and show it has the technology that can somehow turn this stone into a more valuable fuel than just burning it in stacks as 'poor man's coal.'
And maybe the Estonians can and will. Or the Kingdom of Jordan. Maybe it will be a small U.S. company, the French, the Chinese, or Canadians.
A lot have tried and so far all have failed. But the lure of possibility means that the effort will undoubtedly go on.
Still the fact remains that Royal Dutch Shell was a leader, and they have made a rational market-based decision that turning rock into oil just isn’t worth it. And of course that’s exactly what the oil shale skeptics, energy economists, and the environmentally aware have been saying for years.