Oil shale to the rescue

Oil shale just might be this country’s energy salvation, although a friend of mine isn’t excited about it. He’s an engineer and was involved in some extraction and processing of the kerogen-loaded, sedimentary rock during the 1970s energy crisis, and witnessed what was apparently one heck of an explosion.

"I wasn’t scared," he said as we bantered one Friday morning in my favorite Golden, Colo., coffee shop, "but I ran past some guys who were."

Explosions are just part of the problems with oil shale. Getting at that rock and then heating up and distilling the kerogen to get oil from it is a lengthy, expensive, environmentally hazardous undertaking, but here comes the encouraging news.

The cost begins to make economic sense in an era of $145 a barrel for oil, researchers are coming up with technologies that just might alleviate the worst environmental impacts and natural hindrances while easing the cost, and there is enough oil shale out there to keep our "energy-intensive lifestyles cruising well into the next century."

The quoted material comes from a thoughtful article in a magazine put out by the Colorado School of Mines, a superb engineering and science institution that also happens to be located in Golden. The writer, Paul Roberts, notes that the "three trillion barrels of recoverable oil" in shale deposits are equal to all the liquid oil "known to have (ever) existed on our planet." Half of all of this, he says, is in the United States.

Most of the U.S. share, Roberts also writes, can be found in the Green River Formation, which stretches through Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and which has recoverable oil that is three times — yes, three times — the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Given that the oil shale is so close at hand, it’s no surprise that researchers at the school have been studying it for decades, or that there is now intense interest in the subject at the Colorado Energy Research Institute located at the school.

While no one seems to be minimizing the negatives — the carbon emissions processing could produce, the chance of scarring the land and contaminating water, the need for vast amounts of water, the possibility of boom cities where we now have natural splendor — neither should anyone minimize the ingenuity of companies that are figuring out how to dodge destructiveness.

Foremost among them, it seems, is Shell Oil, which has been working on a means of processing the oil shale underground with a refrigerant-induced "freeze wall" surrounding the rock and safeguarding the water beyond it. One company looking at aboveground processing plans to hold down carbon emissions by using hydrogen fuel to heat the oil shale. The techniques being discussed sound little short of dazzling, and it’s not just discussion going on; it’s millions of dollars worth of experimentation.

Oil shale isn’t the only answer to what ails us, but should almost certainly be part of a package that includes overcoming environmentalist resistance to building new refineries and drilling offshore and in Alaska to produce enough oil and natural gas to give us literally years of all those resources we need. Nuclear energy is crucial to a solution, as well, and yes, we need to continue work on solar energy, battery technology, hybrid, high-mileage autos, and much, much more.

The chief enemy to much of this is ideological paralysis, a never-say-die resistance to anything that smacks of the old ways, and there is this much truth to the arguments — without prudence and an iron determination to avoid environmental degradation, we could wreck ourselves while aiming to save ourselves.

And yet technology has already achieved the means of drilling without disaster and can almost certainly provide us the other protections we need as we aim to maintain a standard of living some denigrate despite all its victories over human misery. It’s going to take years to reach our destination, but if we are rational and have confidence in ourselves — if we carefully take dangers out of the picture and then refuse to be scared — we will find ways to endure the moment and get there.


(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)