Oil shale advocates convene meeting on regulatory roadblocks in Grand Junction

By David O. Williams
Real AspenAugust 24, 2011
The old joke on Colorado's Western Slope – in a gallows humor kind of way – is that oil shale is the energy of the future … and always will be. But Colorado congressmen Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn say the future is now – even if the oil and gas industry isn't quite ready.

The two Republican members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources are holding an oversight hearing today in Grand Junction entitled “American Jobs and Energy Security: Domestic Oil Shale the Status of Research, Regulation and Roadblocks.”

Some Republican lawmakers and proponents of full-scale commercial oil shale production say the Obama administration is dragging its feet on a promising source of domestic oil found in abundance in the Green River Formation of northwest Colorado, eastern Utah and southwest Wyoming.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

But opponents, including some Democratic lawmakers and members of Colorado's conservation community, say oil shale has had decades to prove itself commercially and has consistently failed, including the infamous “Black Sunday” of May 2, 1982, when Exxon laid off 2,200 workers at the Colony Project in Battlement Mesa.

“To help drive economic recovery we must expand energy exploration, embrace an all-of-the-above approach to energy development, and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil,” Tipton said in a release. “Through this hearing I hope to shed light on some of the opportunities we have to jump start responsible production of our oil shale reserves, and find solutions to spur on job creation in Colorado and across the nation.”

The Checks and Balances Project environmental watchdog group has produced an “Oil Shale Bingo” card to track statements made by industry officials and politicians touting the unfulfilled promise of oil shale production for more than a century. The idea is to match past statements with more of the same at today's hearing.

Even the most ardent backers of oil shale will admit commercial production of modest amounts of oil is at least a decade away, if not 20 or 30 years, by which time oil shale opponents say similar investment in proven renewable energy sources would have much greater results with far less environmental impact.

Oil shale production – not to be confused with shale oil and gas (which is commercially viable) – is a process by which rocks containing kerogen, an organic precursor to oil, are super-heated in order to extract the kerogen and refine it into oil. Companies including Shell and others are currently conducting oil shale research on six parcels of federal land in the Green River Formation, but industry officials and GOP backers want more.

The Bush administration set royalty rates and expanded leasing opportunities on its way out the door in 2008, but the Obama administration has reined in that process, seeking more environmental safeguards and commercial certainty before vastly ramping up research. However, even the Obama administration has offered three new parcels – one of which ExxonMobil is seeking to lease.

The Rand Corporation produced a policy paper on oil shale that for years has been cited as an example of why the production process will consume large amounts of precious western water and conventional power and basically industrialize the region. In June, a Rand official testified that “decisions made by the federal government may have a profound impact on the residents in the northwestern quarter of Colorado …”

Backers say the amount of water needed per barrel of oil is declining as research progresses and that natural gas produced during the process can be used to power the in-situ heating of rocks to extract kerogen. But the amount of water needed is still at least three barrels for every barrel of oil (and as high as five), and the Colorado River is under more and more pressure every day, according to experts.

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