Why is the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Pushing Oil Shale?

  • Published on August 1st, 2008

Can anyone tell me how the process of extracting oil from solid rock could be defined as either efficient or renewable? I was struck by a story in the Department of Energy office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s weekly electronic newsletter, The EERE Network News, that touted the benefits of developing western oil shale and drilling in the arctic. I was also struck by how the piece was so politically driven.

In the wake of this week’s unexpected resignation of EERE chief Andy Karsner, I find the below excerpt from the newsletter more than just a little interesting. Was Karsner resigning in protest to the Senate GOP’s blockage of renewable energy tax credits? Or was Karsner recognizing that all of his efforts with renewable energy were going to be all for not, because he was employed in an administration hell-bent on petroleum? Whatever the answer is, it is hard to believe all of these events are merely coincidental.

From the EERE newsletter:

U.S. Agencies Look to Oil Shale and the Arctic for Petroleum

With world oil prices near record levels, the United States is investigating ways to increase domestic petroleum production. According to DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States currently consumes 24% of the world’s oil but produces only 10% of it, causing us to import about 60% of the oil we consume. One potential new source of domestic petroleum is oil shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing organic matter from which oil can be produced. The largest known deposits are located in a 16,000-square-mile area covering parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, of which about 72% is on federal lands. Last week the Bureau of Land Management published proposed regulations for establishing a commercial shale oil program. Commercial development is not expected for several years, but the U.S. Department of Interior estimates that Western oil shale potentially holds 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The United States consumed about 20.7 million barrels per day in 2006, so that’s more than a century of current U.S. oil consumption. See the Interior Department press release and the EIA’s “Energy in Brief” on U.S. oil consumption.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has completed its assessment of the undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and natural gas that exists north of the Arctic Circle, an area that includes the northern one-third of Alaska. According to the USGS, about 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil lie north of the Arctic Circle, including about 30 billion barrels of oil in the “Arctic Alaska” region, which extends to the north, east, and west of Alaska. That sounds like a lot, but it’s barely four years of U.S. oil consumption. With a decreasing amount of sea ice in the Arctic, many Northern nations are now considering the future possibility of offshore oil exploration in the Arctic Circle. See the USGS “ Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal.”

Of course, other options available in the United States are increased drilling of conventional resources and reduced petroleum demand. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), domestic oil and gas drilling is already up, with 50% more exploratory well drilled in the second quarter of 2008 than in the corresponding period a year ago. While most of that drilling is targeting natural gas, an estimated 5,219 oil wells were completed in the second quarter, marking the highest number of second-quarter oil well completions since 1986. The API also notes that U.S. oil demand was down significantly for the first half of 2008, with deliveries of all oil products down by 3%, for an average demand of 20.08 million barrels per day. As a result, U.S. oil imports sank to their lowest first-half level since 2003, at less than 13 million barrels per day. See the API press releases on the drilling activity and the petroleum demand.

Doesn’t it seem to you that it is outside the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s scope of responsibility to be preaching about the benefits of developing oil-shale and drilling in the arctic?

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About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.
  • Daniel
  • Nordic

    There are a few problems with the oil shale. One it will take at least 15 years for this to make a significant impact in how much oil we import. Two, this is still not a renewable resource as it will last only 100 years at current rates, which is substantially lower than that (we're not going to stay using the same amount of energy). Three, this is essentially boring out huge amounts of shale and forcing out the oil. I imagine it is pretty brutal to the landscape to pull out 800 billion barrels or 33 trillion 600 billion gallons of oil out of the mountains. I wonder how much oil you get for how much shale you have to excavate. Just so you know everyone shale is a rock so you have to pull out the rock and juice it to get the oil. Also you need 2 to 5 gallons of water per gallon of oil so that's at least 68 trillion gallons of water to produce all the oil that supposedly can be pulled from the mountains. This all becomes waste water as it comes out a sludge.

  • Mark Landson

    As glenn alluded to above, Shell has been secretly working on shale oil for 2 decades, and have apparently cracked the code as to how to extract it economically and with very minimum damage to the environment.

    They recently came out to explain the process since they had to apply for patents, etc.

    The Shell process consists of drilling holes into the ground with heating elements. There are perimeter holes that freeze the surrounding ground to avoid seepage into the ground water supply. The shale oil then actually runs out of the rock and into a middle hole, where it can be easily pumped out, and it is a very high quality oil, as well.

    Shell estimates that this process would be profitable if gasoline were only $2/gallon, so it's certainly efficient enough.

    Shell is building a refinery on site. The estimated time to bring this to market is around 8 years.

    A lot of water will be needed, for sure, but the same can be said for algae biodiesel production, which hopefully will supplant most oil use down the line.

    As far as oil being a renewable energy source, as research like this continues, we may find out that oil is more renewable than we expect now. After all, oil is basically sunlight energy trapped and concentrated through pressure and heat. If oil shale, which is basically crude oil that is a million years too young, can be turned into crude oil by speeding up the process, who is to say there won't be other advances that do more than that?

  • This is a great discussion – on so many levels. Thank you all for your comments.

    Although I intended to emphasize the oddity of seeing an oil-shale themed article in a publication from the branch of the DOE in charge of renewable energy, I can see by the above discussion — of the actual processes, economic feasibility, and environmental impacts — that the substantive issue is much more important to folks.

    As a Colorado resident, I am all too aware of how precious of a resource water is. Everyone has heard the old adage: "In the West, whiskey is for drinkin' and water is for fightin'. It is my understanding that developing oil shale can use anywhere from 2-5 barrels for every barrel of oil produced. Can the already over-burdened Colorado River basin handle this kind of water use? As it stands currently, the mighty Colorado is barely a trickle when it gets to the Sea of Cortez.

    As far as oil-shale infrastructure only taking two years, I'm just not seeing those type numbers anywhere – especially considering the oil companies are still real leery about diving in full-bore because of the costs.

  • ecostew

    As we (globally) are confronted with AGW, we are facing energy security issues, including world-wide peak oil production with increasing demand, which sets the value of a drum of oil. Opening US sensitive environmental areas to offshore drilling will not increase peak oil production today or in 5-10 years as world-wide production declines. We must look to alternate sources of energy immediately for our transportation needs while addressing AGW e.g., renewable wind, solar, and biomass for electricity generation. Oil shale is not a solution given its energy and water extraction demands, environmental destruction (including residues), and GHG emissions. Corn grain ethanol is not a solution due to low net energy gain, GHG emissions, environmental degradation (e.g., water pollution and soil loss), and food supply issues) and cellulosic ethanol doesn't look favorable due to energy density issues and GHG emissions. Coal without carbon capture and increased pollution abatement is also not a long-term solution.

  • glenn

    Of course it's reasonable. 5.2 TRILLION bbl of oil in that formation. Needs 2 things to get out by the process Shell learned last year: heat and water. Heat? Yellowstone caldera is nearby. Develop that, get the oil, side benefit get a geothermal industry that can be used all over the west. Water? Fresh water is not too plentiful there but pipe in salt water from the oceans of which there is plenty. You need pipes to get the oil out anyway; this just says you run extra ones to get water in. It stays underground, out of aquifers. Surface is almost totally undisturbed by the Shell process. So why treat this as though someone wanted to strip mine all of Wyoming??? We'd have enough oil to make the whole middle east look like a minor player.

  • One facet of both tar sands and shale production that make it challenging for them to compete, even as conventional oil prices increase, is the fact that they are very dependent on injections of external energy.

    Both sources of usable fuels require heating, additional hydrogen, and excavation of enormous quantities of rock in order to produce. Unlike conventional oil and gas that flows of its own accord, this stuff requires a lot of work. Work is defined as the integral of power.

    Since Power is Energy/Unit time, it takes a lot of energy to wrest the energy in shale and tar sands from the ground. It is only economical if there is a cheap source of energy available.

    The tar sands developments have been made possible because there was stranded natural gas that could not get to market due to lack of pipelines. It is easier to ship liquids than it is to ship gas so it made some economic sense to use the gas to produce even a relatively small quantity of liquid fuel.

    Unfortunately, Colorado shale may be subject to the same economics where a cheap, stranded source of natural gas makes it economical to put in the work necessary to produce oil from shale – for a while. Once as is becoming more apparent in Canada, when the cheap gas is no longer available…

    What happens then? Who restores the land that was torn up? Who pulls the excess pollutants out of the air that were injected during the boom times?

    I do, however, understand the desires of those who would rather put a lot of work into producing oil from North America and employing North Americans rather than sending 700 billion a year to people that often do not like us very much. Definitely a dilemma.

    Good thing there is a reliable, emission free, low cost alternative or two. (Nuclear fission is my favorite, but large scale wind can work for some needs.)

  • Andrew Williams

    It is economically viable.

    The Nazi's used oil synthesized from coal to fuel their war machine, and that was over 50 years ago. Of course, they were using slave labor (the interred Jewish population) at the I.G. Farben plant that was producing the synthetic oil; however, that was over 50 years ago. The coal/shale to liquid process has to have come a long way in that time, also with the current price of a barrel of oil, I'm surprised we haven't been making use of CTL (Coal to Liquid) technology earlier. Coal is the one thing we're not running out of anytime soon in this country.

    Oh wait, I'm not surprised. Because the oil industry owns the coal too, and they'll squeeze every last dollar out of natural oil before they present an alternative.

    I'm not at all for fossil fuels, but if we opened up CTL plants around this country, we could cease our need for foreign oil, and bring the price way down. At least until we can build the infrastructure to run on renewables.

    But I think we know how likely it is that the oil companies will present an alternative to their product in their most profitable period in history.

  • JIm Jones

    Its all about money and getting filthy RICH, not to mention about "who" you know!


  • Bruce Dearborn Walke

    I grew up in Colorado, and during the oil crisis of the '70's worked construction. For one year I built infrastructure for oil shale extraction until the Arabs dropped the price to keep us on the hook.

    The biggest source of oil in America is actually the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, which are similar and part of the same geologic feature as the oil shale. We could in fact extract usable oil from the Colorado shale, at considerably less than what we pay other countries now. It would take at least two years to build the infrastructure, and it will have an effect on the environment; however the oil shale is strikingly ugly, looking like giant piles of chunky poop, and it's removal would only improve the view. Nothing grows on the oil shale except the occasional weed, no trees, no wildlife.

    Using oil shale would actually save us quite a bit of money, and additionally keep us from having to fund our enemies. When the Arabs dropped the price of oil, shortsighted economic policies dropped the project. With the knowledge learned from the Canadian oil sands, using the oil shale should be considerably less injurious to my lovely state's environment than it would have been 30 years ago, and economically even more efficient.

  • rick

    It's oil from a friendly nation that doesn't want to kill us. so i say moar of it!

  • Vic

    Keep Thinking: While you're right that oil has played a huge role in shaping our current global civilisation, it is still "so horrible". Burning oil produces CO2, which *has* been linked to anthropogenic global warming/climate change. Your claim that it is not "proven" shows you do not understand concepts like proof or uncertainty as they are used in a scientific context. It's not your fault. Many scientists and ex-scientists are paid by oil companies to misrepresent the science and create confusion.

    By the way, the amount of CO2 we exhale pales in comparison to the amount released by burning oil or forests. Scientists understand our ecosystem better than you think.

    Jason: Oil is a globalized market. Any oil you get out of the shale will sell at the same price as imported oil, give or take government subsidies. It doesn't matter anyway. By the time that oil even starts to make it to market gas will be at least $7 a gallon and probably more, and that extra oil won't be enough to affect the price.

  • Getting oil from rocks might cut down the demand for digging natural resources, but it wont help the environment if we are still burning it like oil…..

    also (and I maybe wrong) but don't rocks and sediment play a vital role in the Earth's convection process? if we start burning it all away, will it do more harm than good in the long run? isn't that what is most important for the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy?

    Just a few points that spring to mind….

  • dieseldad

    STOP! PLEASE! We're dying here! Let's stop the debate and get behind Gore's challenge for switching to renewable energy sources. It's our only hope!

  • Jason Armstrong

    Extracting oil from shale is efficient because although the cost of getting it out is higher than getting conventional oil reserves out, oil shale is free from the implied cost $$$$ of doing business with a bunch of closeted extremists who live in the Middle East(see: Saud, House of).

  • Keep Thinking

    I am still amazed that people believe that oil is so horrible… without oil, our lives would be almost completely dedicated to hunting, fishing and farming… since we would almost have no transportation, no plastics, no airlines, no space flights, no life as you now know it…. so before you dismiss oil in favor of solar, wind, etc… remember that it takes oil to even make those other energies… good luck on finding a solution before civilization grinds to a hault…. or some other country decides that our weakness for using oil is an advantage they can exploit…. especially since they do not have the same weakness….

    Regardless, I cannot believe that anyone even believes that CO2 is a problem!

    Please consider that man-caused Global Warming/Climate Change has not even been proven!!

    Then consider that we exhale CO2… how can an eco system so complex as ours be understood with our limited knowledge….

    Please question anyone who believes that CO2 is a danger with as much vigor as you question and doubt those that do not!

  • RE Wonk-

    Thanks for enlightening us about the details of that particular section of the newsletter. And while I now understand that this section is generally about other (non-renewable) energy issues, I do not understand why they released this story as a stand-alone news item in their news feed (http://www.eere.energy.gov/news/news_detail.cfm/news_id=11898).

    I stand by remarks that I think this is inappropriate material for the EERE to be releasing in their feed.

    I went back and read through the last 10 'Energy Connections' pieces and found that while many of them discussed new opportunities in oil exploration, there were also a few that talked about increases in CO2 levels and warm temperatures. Broadly speaking, however, I did not like the presentation of much of this information, as it was done so in a manner that makes it appear as pure fact with no discussion of the environmental implications.

    **"Global Oil Production Fell by 0.2% in 2007, Says BP" [this one had a great line in it from BP, which I am supposed to assume is apolitical: "According to BP, oil production declines are caused by political issues, not geological factors, as oil companies are having trouble gaining access to oil reserves."

    Call me a skeptic, but that's what I do. Thanks for your comment!

  • RE Wonk

    The EERE Network News includes a section called "Energy Connections" that looks at news from the larger world of energy, and that's where this article was included. With a lot of conversation in the energy and political world centered around finding more petroleum, this is an appropriate topic, I think.

    That section has also included news on topics like nukes, LNG imports, Canadian oil sands, and carbon capture for coal. What you choose to do with it is up to you. You could, for instance, submit public comments against the proposed oil shale rule. Or you might decide that oil shale is a good thing. Or you could look into it further.

    And Karsner's resignation is hardly unexpected. It's quite common for political appointees to jump ship before the new administration comes in, as it's better to resign than to be kicked and shoved out the door. No conspiracy theory needed here!

  • Alexander

    marketplace ran a story about this the other day. Chevron thinks they can extract the oil economically within a few years.

    transcript available here: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/20