Promoting oil shale: Big role foreseen for big resource

Brad McCloud expects to draw on his experiences in the energy industry and marketing in his new role as executive director of the National Oil Shale Association. While commercial oil shale production has yet to be fully realized in Western Colorado, McCloud believes technological advancements will enable production in economically and environmentally sustainable ways. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
Brad McCloud expects to draw on his experiences in the energy industry and marketing in his new role as executive director of the National Oil Shale Association. While commercial oil shale production has yet to be fully realized in Western Colorado, McCloud believes technological advancements will enable production in economically and environmentally sustainable ways. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

        While the promise of commercial oil shale production has yet to be fully realized in Western Colorado, Brad McCloud believes there’s an upside to slow development.

As technology to extract oil from shale improves, so do the prospects of doing so in economically and environmentally sustainable ways, McCloud says.  “We’ve got the luxury right now of doing it the right way.”

Given the enormous size of the resource, McCloud believes oil shale has an equally large role to play in meeting energy needs and, in turn, bolstering the economy and security of the United States.

“I think it’s an exciting time for oil shale,” says McCloud, the new executive director of the National Oil Shale Association (NOSA). The organization of  corporations, nonprofit groups and individuals promotes oil shale development through a mission that involves education and community outreach.

McCloud succeeds Glenn Vawter, a former energy industry executive who retired after serving as director for eight years. McCloud said Vawter did “an amazing job” and expects to consult with him. “As big as those shoes are, I’m excited to step into this role.”

McCloud brings to his new duties familiarity not only with oil shale development and the energy industry, but also communications and marketing.

McCloud served as executive director of Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale in Grand Junction. He also works as senior project manager for EIS Solutions, a firm that offers a range of services related to public and government relations, message development and research. Before that, he worked as a sales manager for Grand Junction television and radio stations. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Colorado Mesa University.

McCloud considers his latest position his “dream job,” though, in promoting energy development he considers important and the companies involved in that development. “I’m passionate about it.” He said he’s also looking to tapping his experiences in communications and building partnerships.

While the mission of NOSA could evolve as part of the change of leadership, McCloud says the role of the group for now remains primarily an educational one in informing the public, government officials and various groups about the activities of the companies involved in oil shale development in Colorado and Utah. He works out of offices in Grand Junction, but also expects to travel as needed.

Work continues on a number of oil shale projects in Colorado and Utah, the location of the largest and richest oil shale formations in the world. Oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, a hydrocarbon that when heated becomes liquid and is released from the rock. The resulting liquid can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products much like crude oil.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the equivalent of 353 billion to more than 1 trillion barrels of recoverable oil are locked in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. That’s nearly equal to the world’s proven reserves of conventional oil.

While oil shale production dates back more than 150 years, efforts to extract oil from shale have varied over the years along with the demand for and price of oil.

A major push in the 1970s led to a boom and subsequent bust in Western Colorado after Exxon announced it was closing down its oil shale project.

Oil shale development is different now, McCloud says, in that it’s funded by private companies rather than the federal government and the technology keeps advancing.

“The universe to operate in is completely different,” he says.

Shell Oil closed its Mahogany Project in Western Colorado, ending more than 30 years of work on developing technology to heat oil shale deep in place — or “in situ” — deep underground within a protective enclosure of ice.

But work continues on other oil shale research projects on federal lands in Colorado, McCloud says, including projects by American Oil Shale to develop different in-situ technology.

The effort is further along on in Utah, which offers private and state land for development and a more accommodating political environment, McCloud says. There, Red Leaf Resources heats mined shale in huge closed surface impoundments called capsules to extract oil.

Elsewhere in the world, commercial oil shale production has occurred for decades in Estonia and has increased in Brazil and China.

The speed with which commercial oil shale development ultimately is realized in the United States and Colorado continues to depend in part on regulations and regulatory certainty, McCloud says.

An environmental impact statement completed in 2008 would have made a total of about 2.4 million acres of federal lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming available for potential oil shale leasing and development.

But under a subsequent environmental analysis conducted to settle a lawsuit, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management changed its preferred alternative and reduced available land to a total of 462,000 acres in the three states. In Colorado, the available land decreased from 346,000 to 35,308 acres.

The price of oil constitutes another major factor companies consider in allocating resources for oil shale development, McCloud says.

Environmental issues play a role as well.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, oil shale development can produce more energy than what’s required for extraction. Moreover, advancing technology enables production with less water, McCloud says. By some estimates, development can occur with an average of less than 2 barrels of water required for every barrel of oil produced.

Some extraction techniques need only minimal water, and that’s for dust control and reclamation, he adds.

The slower pace of oil shale development offers a benefit, McCloud says, in that companies have time to address economic and environmental issues. And those companies want to develop oil shale in a responsible manner, he says. “They want to be good community partners.”

Meanwhile, McCloud says it’s his job as executive director of NOSA to keep the public, businesses, government officials and community groups informed of the progress in oil shale development; keep lines of communication open; and develop relationships to address any issues.

It’s a job McCloud says he has the experience and expertise to do. What’s more, it’s a job he says he loves.

Given the vast size of the oil shale resource, McCloud believes the potential is equally great to develop a long-term source of energy that would boost the economy and security of the United States.

“This opportunity is there for us to grow and expand, and it could be a real positive partnership for our communities and our country,” he says.

For more information about oil shale development and the National Oil Shale Association, visit www.oilshaleassoc.org.