Plenty of Shale, Plenty of Problems

Green River Basin
The Green River Basin in the western United States is home to vast oil shale resources.

In a new report, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns about the dangers of producing transportation fuel from oil shale, a crude oil alternative that has not yet been commercially developed in the United States. The study, Driving It Home: Choosing the Right Path for Fueling North America’s Transportation Future, explores the economic viability and potential environmental impacts of extracting oil from shale and presents a range of other energy and policy options. Written in conjunction with Western Resources Advocates and the Pembina Institute, the report also focuses on the implications of developing transport fuel from two other controversial sources: tar sands and coal.

Oil shale—sedimentary rock that contains a petroleum-like substance called kerogen—is found in great quantities in the western United States, particularly in the Green River Basin spanning portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. According to Bobby McEnaney, a public lands advocate at NRDC, there are two main ways to extract the kerogen from the shale. The first, an “ex-situ” process, involves mining the shale in an open-pit or underground mine, crushing it, and then distilling it at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The other method, which remains largely unproven, is an “in-situ” process whereby heaters are placed in the ground to liquefy the kerogen in place. The liquid can then be extracted using current oil well technology and sent to a refinery to be processed.

The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires the Department of Interior to promote research and development of oil shale resources and to establish a commercial leasing program, accelerating the potential commercialization of the fuel source. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has already set aside three separate 160-acre (65 hectare) tracts of land for research activities, and plans to hold a sale of commercial oil shale leases by the end of 2008. However, data from any research projects—including information on the environmental and social impacts and economic viability of the resource—would likely not be available by the time the commercial leases are offered.

Studies conducted so far suggest that oil shale extraction would adversely affect the air, water, and land around proposed projects. The distillation process would release toxic pollutants into the air—including sulfur dioxide, lead, and nitrogen oxides. Existing BLM analysis indicates that current oil shale research projects would reduce visibility by more than 10 percent for several weeks a year. And NRDC states that in a well-to-wheel comparison, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil shale are close to double those from conventional crude, with most of them occurring during production. According to the Rand Corporation, producing 100,000 barrels of oil shale per day would emit some 10 million tons of GHGs.

The BLM reports that mining and distilling oil shale would require an estimated 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced—inputs that could reduce the annual flow of Colorado’s White River by as much as 8.2 percent. Residues that remain from an in-situ extraction process could also threaten water tables in the Green River Basin, the agency says.

NRDC notes that the infrastructure needed to develop oil shale would impose equally serious demands on local landscapes. The group warns that impressive arrays of wildlife would be displaced as land is set aside for oil shale development. And it says that while open pit mining would scar the land, in-situ extraction would require leveling the land and removing all vegetation.

In addition to the environmental impacts of oil shale, vast amounts of energy are required to support production. In Driving it Home, NRDC cites Rand Corporation estimates that generating 100,000 barrels of shale oil would require 1,200 megawatts of power—or the equivalent of a new power plant capable of serving a city of 500,000 people. Proponents of oil shale have a stated goal of producing one million barrels of the resource per day.

So far, large-scale oil shale projects have not yet been started in the United States, and the BLM is still drafting its environmental impact study. The public examination and comment period is scheduled to begin this summer. Unless oil shale development receives considerable government support, the industry is not expected to be economically viable. According to the Denver Post, the oil company Shell recently withdrew its application for a mining permit for an oil shale research and development lease, citing economic reasons.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.