Grand Junction inventor needs quarter-acre to test technology

Peter Kearl of Grand Junction examines a piece of broken Green River shale at the base of Long Point, a shale formation north of De Beque along Conn Creek Road. Kearl and Qmast LLC, the production company that he heads, hope to use microwaves to extract oil from the Green River shale in a more energy- and water-efficient manner than what is now being used.



QUICKREAD

A look at the players and the status of their projects on the Bureau of Land Management’s northwest Colorado leases:

■ American Shale Oil, which is backed by IDT Corp. and the French petroleum giant, Total, is reviewing heating system ideas, including hot-fluid circulation and electric heaters. The heater-development process will continue until at least the second half of 2014, company officials said.

■ ExxonMobil is proposing another in-situ approach, heating shale underground and then pumping out the oil. Exxon wants to hydraulically fracture the oil shale, fill the fractures with conductive material and heat it electrically. ExxonMobil and Natural Soda Inc. anticipate beginning work on the ground this year, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

■ Natural Soda Inc. plans to remove deposits of nahcolite, or baking soda, leaving underground caverns in the shale. It then would heat the rock using a downhole burner or a closed-loop steam system.

■ Chevron ended its experiment into oil shale before Shell pulled out of its three leases and abandoned its Mahogany Project. Chevron is in the process of plugging the wells on three water-monitoring pads and one corehole pad and will start reclaiming the pads when plugging is complete.

The BLM may retain one well for livestock purposes, the agency said.

■ Shell is working to reclaim all its oil shale-related activities on its three leases and most of its buildings and equipment have been removed from the Shell lease, the BLM said.

OIL SHALE SNAPSHOT



Microwaving rock in northwest Colorado could turn the oil shale business inside out, said a Grand Junction inventor who is working to restart oil shale at a time when many are pulling away from it.

Using equipment small enough to be loaded onto two trucks traversing the surface could result in minimal surface disturbance, said Peter Kearl, a Grand Valley native who heads Qmast LLC, http://www.qmast.com, the company pursuing the project.

Not only would his technology disturb little of the surface, it also would likely produce — rather than use — water, Kearl said.

It could be run using natural gas from the Piceance Basin itself as a fuel source and leave behind subterranean caverns that could be used for carbon sequestration, Kearl said.

Most approaches to developing oil shale, from retorting it above the ground to mining and in-situ heating in large expanses, have run afoul of environmental and cost concerns.

Rather than employing a “big-risk, big-reward” approach such as that of Royal Dutch Shell before it pulled out of oil shale entirely last year, Kearl said he’s hoping to use a more measured approach and achieve more reliable and regular results.

Several other oil shale ventures are pushing ahead in Utah, and Kearl acknowledged that it might be easier to test his technology across the state line.

“But I’m a Colorado boy,” he said, voicing his preference for developing oil shale in the Centennial State.

He has a geology degree from what was known then as Mesa College and a degree in hydrogeology from the University of Nevada.

It also helps that the richest, though deepest, deposits of the Green River Formation’s oil shale are in the northwest corner of Colorado.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contain the world’s largest deposits of oil shale that contain as many as 4.2 trillion barrels of oil, according to recent estimates.

Applying microwaves to heat-
targeted areas of rock makes more sense than heating large areas using other methods of heating, Kearl said.

“The fundamental physics are definitely on our side,” he said.

The process would send the microwave equipment down a well to heat the hydrocarbon-bearing rock to the point that it would release crude oil that then could be collected by conventional drilling, he said.

The technology could tap shale on steep slopes from the side, allowing the oil to simply flow out, he said.

He presented his idea in 2012 at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on the Stanford University campus.

The more targeted approach he advocates could prove to be a financial success, Kearl said.

A well 300 meters deep could produce revenue of $80 million, based on $100-per-barrel crude prices, he said.

Kearl and his partners are working to arrange financing of $5.5 million for a test. That step is difficult because the federal government appears to be uninterested in making available any more land for research, demonstration and development leases.

The effective ban on experimentation “thwarts inventiveness,” Kearl said.

So he’s also looking for a small parcel of land, a quarter of an acre would do, on which to test his technology, including his estimate that he could produce about half a barrel of water for each barrel of oil he produces.

The patented microwave technology he’s considering wouldn’t require a large electricity supply, he said, because the process also would produce natural gas, which could be used to fire the generators for the microwave equipment.


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