Solving oil shale puzzle worth continued efforts

Oil shale development in Western Colorado has posed a challenging puzzle to say the least. Even after investing millions upon millions of dollars and decades of research into various methods of extracting kerogen from shale formations without having to simply mine and process the rock, the efforts have yet to result in commercial-shale production.

Shell Oil is the latest energy company to shut down a Western Slope research project even though the company was working on a unique process to heat shale behind a protective wall of ice.

While detractors argue there are good reasons oil shale hasn’t yet worked and is unlikely to ever work, there are two more reasons to try, try again.

Glen Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association based in Glenwood Springs, offers an excellent analogy in comparing oil shale development to what once was considered the improbable prospect of ever extracting oil and natural gas from so-called “tight” rock formations.

Nobody thought such plays would ever pan out. But using such technology as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling produced what’s been aptly called a revolution in energy production that well could make the United States independent from foreign sources of oil. That’s not counting the myriad benefits of abundant and inexpensive natural gas.

Could technology similarly solve the puzzle of oil shale?

Efforts under way on state-owned and managed lands in Utah to cook shale within large enclosed surface impoundments offers the promise of economical commercial production without the need for water, not to mention protections against groundwater contamination.

Remember, too, that oil shale production facilities already are operating in other countries, among them Australia, Brazil, China and Estonia.

The other good reason to continue to pursue oil shale development is a big one, indeed, and that’s the vast scale of the resource. By one estimate, the equivalent of 1.5 trillion barrels of oil remain trapped in oil shale formations in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, about half of which is recoverable. That’s nearly double the estimated crude oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. How can a potential resource of that magnitude be ignored?

Unfortunately, the challenge to oil shale development in the United States includes regulatory obstacles. Under a second environmental impact analysis conducted to settle a lawsuit, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management changed its preferred alternative and called for a substantial reduction in federal land available in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for potential oil shale leasing and development. In Colorado alone, the available acreage shrunk by nearly a factor of 10 from 346,000 acres to 35,308 acres. By one estimate, the reduction would take off the table about 90 percent of the richest oil shale deposits in the world. Does that make any sense?

There’s nothing wrong with a cautious approach to oil shale development, particularly given the lasting legacy of an oil shale boom and subsequent bust in Western Colorado. The potential environmental and social effects of commercial oil shale production must be addressed and mitigated.

But as long as people continue to drive cars fueled by gasoline, it would be shortsighted to give up entirely on solving the oil shale puzzle. Who truly knows the full ramifications of a solution?