Burning rocks and rhetoric about ‘the fuel of the future’

In Estonia, where it’s mined and then burned to produce nearly all of that eastern European nation’s power, it’s called “polevkivi”… burning rock. Closer to home, a century or more ago, oil shale was dubbed “the rock that burns.”

Now, as you’ve read in recent days, the Estonians are staking a claim in our own nascent oil shale industry. Their state-run (and state-subsidized) power firm, Enfit, is acquiring the Oil Shale Exploration Company, a firm holding one of six research and development leases on federal lands in Utah and Colorado. CEO Sandor Liive hopes Enfit will be producing commercial quantities of synthetic oil from northeastern Utah oil shale by 2019.

As in Estonia, OSEC’s technology relies on mining and above-ground retorting, the process that proved to be problematic during our last oil shale boom-and-bust cycle a quarter-century ago. Most other research on leases issued or proposed during the Bush and Obama administrations will explore using various methods of extracting oil from oil shale “in situ,” or underground, avoiding such problems as the “popcorn effect” of creating and disposing of piles of shale residue 1.25 times to 1.5 times the volume of mined shale processed above ground.

The Estonians aren’t the only ones bullish about oil shale.

“Polevkivi” was prominent in some of the discussion a few weeks ago as the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on U.S. energy policies. It’s an open question whether those hearings, thousands of miles from where oil shale development might occur, were an honest examination of those policies or a platform for anti-administration political showboating.

Congressman Scott Tipton raised the, “another Saudi Arabia” comparison in claiming “development of these (oil shale) resources would lead to tens of thousands of good paying jobs and help stabilize our energy supply — putting an end to spikes in gas prices.” Small comfort at the pump today when industry and the National Oil Shale Association, even the Estonians, say commercial production won’t be viable for years, even decades.

But certainly a convenient way to deflect questions about what might be done right now via more politically tricky decisions on both the demand and supply side. And perhaps an example of what one observer described as “politicians writing checks the industry can’t cash.”

Closer to “ground zero,” two Republican state senators representing northwestern Colorado weighed in. Sens. Steve King and Jean White, joined by Ellen Roberts of Durango, accused Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of attempting to impose “new and punitive” restrictions on oil shale development. King said Salazar shouldn’t “willy-nilly wave the white flag on this mammoth bed of energy resources.”

There’s no doubt that’s partisan rhetoric.

The Interior Department is currently processing three more proposed research and development leases offered under almost exactly the same terms as the second round leasing program originally offered and then withdrawn in the final days of the Bush administration. Those leases are now undergoing the same kind of necessary administrative and environmental scrutiny as the original six leases.

King claims what he calls a “wink-and-a-nod settlement” of a lawsuit by environmentalists challenging terms of the original round of leases is “blatant obstructionism of oil shale research and development.” The settlement, announced several weeks ago, might also be seen as a quicker way to remove uncertainty from those six leases than lengthy court battles. And Salazar, in making the announcement, noted it would not impact the proposed second-round leases.

Let’s inject a little reality into this discussion.

Here’s the response to the claim of “the next Saudi Arabia” that’s supposed to contain 1.5 trillion barrels of oil. This is from the manager of energy research for the non-partisan Congressional Research Service: “We did not do a technically recoverable resource estimate because there isn’t one technology yet that is proven.”

From Tom Yelverton of ExxonMobil, one of the applicants for a second round research and development lease, quoted in The Daily Sentinel last November:  “At best, commercial development is a decade away and most likely more.”

Finally, from Glenn Vawter of the National Oil Shale Association:  “People have always been interested in oil shale at times of shortages and high (crude) prices, and that’s because it is such a huge resource. It would help, but it’s not going to be the silver bullet that solves our energy needs.”

If wishes were horses, we’d all be riding ponies. And perhaps filling up with cheap gas from oil shale instead of making political hay from the still-unfulfilled promise of a century of boom-bust cycles involving the “fuel of the future.”

Comments to Jim Spehar are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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