Market helping shale, tar sands, engineer says

GOLDEN — What once was unconventional is becoming the norm in energy circles, a phenomenon that could turn oil shale into a marketable and reliable resource, said Harold Vinegar, who pioneered efforts to collect liquids from oil shale.

Vinegar, now retired from Shell Oil, where he led the company’s experiments in heating rock deep below the surface to release kerogen, a petroleum-like substance, said the reversal bodes well for companies — and countries — with oil shale interests.

“Unconventional is becoming cheaper than conventional” fuel, Vinegar said at the 31st annual Oil Shale Symposium at the Colorado School of Mines.

It’s also becoming easier to reach. “Conventional” crude oil, reached by drilling into the earth to release trapped liquids, is getting more difficult and expensive, driving companies to the depths of the oceans and inhospitable locales, such as the Arctic Circle, he said.

So-called unconventional sources, such as oil shale and tar sands are found in places such as Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, as well as in other places around the earth, such as Australia, Estonia, India, Jordan, Israel, China and other more-easily accessed locations.

“There’s no exploration risk” such as dry holes, the bane of the drilling business, and unconventional fuels don’t spill, Vinegar said, giving them an environmental leg up on their conventional competitors, Vinegar said.

Technology also is making unconventional sources more economic, just as hydraulic fracturing has done to rewrite the natural gas market, he said.

Unconventional fuels also tend to be found in more stable nations, such as the United States, that are net energy importers, as opposed to more volatile regions that now supply the bulk of the world’s conventional sources, Vinegar said.

Conventional sources might still have an economic advantage over their unconventional competition, but the field is leveling and could soon reverse, Vinegar said.

“That point is not yet here yet, but it might be coming,” he said.


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