Energy Alley oil shale deposits: Richest in the world

For more than a century now, the pale cliffs overlooking the Colorado River have been known to hold a giant energy storehouse. But it is one that has at times looked more like a carnival funhouse with distorted reflections, dead-end alleys, mysteries and disappointments around every corner.

With the worldwide growth in need for liquid transportation fuels, though, interests around the globe are focusing more and more on the 150-mile Energy Alley from Green River to Rifle and its oil shale deposits, which are the richest on the planet — and perhaps the most defiant of man’s efforts to put them to use.

The Green River Formation of western Colorado, eastern Utah and Wyoming is estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to contain the equivalent of 2 trillion barrels of oil, with the largest portion, 1.5 trillion barrels, residing in the Piceance Basin.

That’s about half again what the survey believed was hidden in oil shale 20 years ago.

As conventional sources of oil have shrunk, oil shale has drawn more attention from industry giants and foreign nations.

Royal Dutch Shell is working on three, 160-acre research plots on federal lands in Rio Blanco County aimed at showing that shale can be heated in place to release hydrocarbons.

French petroleum giant Total is part of another experimental plot that hopes to show it can recover petroleum from oil shale by burning the deepest parts of the deposits to heat the higher levels and free kerogen above.

Petrobras, the Brazilian multinational energy company headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, along with Mitsui & Co., a Japanese investment and trading company, is working with the Oil Shale Exploration Co. on the possibility of duplicating in Utah the operations of Petrosbras’ gas-combustion retort it has operated for 30 years in Brazil.

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company, has been working now for years on the shale lands it owns to find an economic way of producing fuel from western Colorado’s rock.

Even China has taken an interest in the potential riches of oil shale in general, and specifically those in western Colorado.

AuraSource, an Arizona-based, publicly-held company, wants one of the BLM’s 160-acre research parcels, so it can test technology patented by the Chinese government and originally used with coal.

AuraSource has an exclusive license for the method pioneered by the Energy and Environmental Research Institute of Heilongjiang, a Chinese government-owned energy research institute. The institute is affiliated with the China Chemical Economic Cooperation Center.

According to company statements, the technology allows for the extraction of clean fuel, such as lightweight fuel oil and oil dry gas, from oil shale by low temperature catalyzing.

“With oil shale and low-ranking coal being so prevalent worldwide, this technology will increase yields dramatically while reducing the resultant wastewater, air pollution and residual pollution,” AuraSource Chief Executive Officer Philip Liu said in a statement.

Other companies are hoping to free the petroleum-like substance from the rock using microwaves, and a company in Utah is mining and heating shale in a retort to release petroleum.

Research into oil shale went into obscurity, but not dormancy, after the collapse of the shale-based economy in 1982.

Major oil companies, notably Shell and ExxonMobil, however, continued to experiment with ways to tease oil from the rock on lands owned by the companies.

Six leases of 160-acre parcels were awarded in Colorado and Utah after the research program for federal lands was established in the 2005 Energy Policy Act .

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this year announced a second round of research leases to be issued after they are reviewed by officials from three federal agencies and the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Leases will be awarded on the potential of proposals to advance knowledge of effective technology, their economic viability, and the effects of development on the environment.

The economic heft of oil shale hardly can be overstated.

“If low-cost shale oil production methods can be achieved, direct economic profits in the $20-billion-per-year range are possible for an oil shale industry producing 3 million barrels per day,” the RAND Corp. said in its 2005 analysis.


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