French firm expands oil research into Colorado

When French energy giant Total recently signed on to a U.S. oil shale project, it became just one more element in the company’s global effort to pursue shale and other unconventional fuel projects.

Total announced earlier this month it plans to acquire a 50 percent stake in IDT Corp.’s American Shale Oil LLC subsidiary. AMSO holds a 160-acre federal oil shale research, development and demonstration lease in Rio Blanco County, and a right to convert that to a commercial development lease covering about eight square miles upon meeting certain conditions.

Total is a “big player” in development of oil sands in Canada, said Tom Ryan, vice president of the corporate division of Total E&P USA Inc.

AMSO president Claude Pupkin notes Total is working on a shale project in Morocco and will be working on one in Jordan. Both of those ex-situ projects involve removing oil shale and processing it above-ground. AMSO is pursuing an in-situ process to produce oil from shale while it’s still in the ground.

Total also is working on heavy oil projects in several other countries and has agreed to collaborate with Petrobras, the Brazilian energy firm, on the Jordan project, said Jeremy Boak, director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines.

Petrobras is working with the Oil Shale Exploration Co. on OSEC’s project in Utah, which includes a federal lease like AMSO’s.

Boak said big national and international energy companies see oil shale as something worth pursuing despite the recent drop in energy prices, and some are getting stakes in the world’s largest oil shale deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

In the long term, they see fuel prices rising again, and they’re looking to unconventional sources because conventional fuels have become harder to find, Boak said.

Said Total’s Ryan, “I think Total has a desire to be an early entrant in technology and resource plays that are the future of the business.”

He added, “We believe that oil shale will be part of the answer to the long-term (energy) supply.”

The company also is pursuing renewable fuels such as wind and solar power, Ryan said. It just acquired nearly a 20 percent interest in Konarka Technologies Inc., a Massachusetts company that makes flexible, photovoltaic plastic films.

Meanwhile, Total agreed in August to partner with Denver-based Independent Energy Partners Inc., which is developing a fuel cell approach aimed at unconventional fuels such as oil shale in-situ in a more energy-efficient manner.

Pupkin said he thinks AMSO’s lease and team of oil shale experts attracted Total to its project. In return, when AMSO gets out of the research and development phase, it needs a partner of Total’s size “to help us build a significant commercial-scale project,” he said.


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