Oil shale has remained on the back burner as a potential energy source for decades.
Western Colorado residents are all too familiar with the oil shale bust of 1982, when Exxon shut down its operations with no advance notice. Driven by government subsidies designed to encourage experimentation with methods of extracting oil from shale, the project near Parachute in Garfield County closed when the subsidies dried up.
Nonetheless, the oil shale experiment continues today in the region.
Shell, Chevron and Exxon Mobil are all actively involved in oil shale activity. The companies are pursuing an in-situ process in which shale is heated in place underground to produce oil. According to the companies, the process is less costly and more environmentally friendly than heating shale after it’s been extracted.
Exxon Mobil calls its process “electrofrac.” Oil shale is heated by passing an electric current through a large resistive heating element formed by filling an hydraulic fracture with an electrically conductive material, according to information from the company.
“Our research has progressed to field testing in surface outcrops accessible at the Colony Mine (near Parachute in Garfield County) in Northwest Colorado,” Margaret Ross, upstream functional media relations manager for Exxon Mobil, stated in an e-mail to the Grand Valley Business Times.
“Tests of electrofrac are currently underway,” Ross stated. “Research and development will continue pursuing full demonstration of the technical, environmental and economic feasibility of this breakthrough technology.”
Still, companies struggle to find a way to charge more for oil shale than it costs to extract.
“On a large scale, oil shale’s not commercially viable,” Curtis Moore, a representative of EIS Solutions in Grand Junction, said during an energy briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce in April. “Most people agree it’s 10 to 15 years out.”
EIS Solutions handles government affairs and public relations for companies involved in the energy industry.
If oil shale were to become viable, Western Colorado would likely see another energy boom.
The Piceance Basin in Garfield County holds about half of the estimated 2 trillion barrels of shale oil in a three-state area that includes Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Commercial oil shale production would lead to the creation of 300,000 jobs in the region, Moore estimated.
In addition to commercial viability, another roadblock to shale oil centers on concerns about water used in production. Production of one barrel of oil can entail the use of two to four barrels of water during the extraction process.
Should oil shale become viable in the future, Moore predicted there will be plenty of markets to use that oil. China is investing in oil shale lands in North America and continues to use more oil each year.
Worldwide, Moore says energy use is expected to increase 45 percent by 2035 — a forecast which holds promise for any economically viable source of energy, including oil shale.