Piceance Basin’s oil shale estimate rises

Area has fifty percent more reserves than once thought, feds say

A new study suggests the stakes are even higher when it comes to hopes of developing oil shale in northwest Colorado and minimizing the impacts of that development.

In a case of the rich getting richer, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated Thursday the region’s Piceance Basin has about 50 percent more oil shale reserves than previously believed.

The agency said the basin holds an estimated 1.525 trillion barrels of oil shale resources, up from a 1989 estimate of about 1 trillion barrels.

“Almost all of this increase is due to assessments of new geographic areas and subsurface zones that had too little data for previous research and assessments,” the agency said in its news release.

The Piceance holds one of the thickest and richest oil shale deposits in the world, with much of it on public land. Despite the size of the resource, the agency said in its news release that oil shale development continues to face significant technological and environmental challenges, and that no economic extraction method is yet available in the United States. As a result, it’s unknown how much of the kerogen contained in oil shale is recoverable.

“The USGS scientific report shows significant quantities of oil locked up in the shale rocks of the Piceance Basin,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in Thursday’s news release. “I believe it demonstrates the need for our continued research and development efforts.”

The American Petroleum Institute agrees with Salazar on that point, it said in a statement.

“That is why we were disappointed that the Interior Department recently delayed issuing a second round of oil shale research and development leases,” the group said.

Salazar delayed the leases to allow public comment, and out of concern over what he thought were low royalty rates and other questionable lease conditions.

Frank Smith, energy organizer for the Western Colorado Congress citizen group, supports continuing research and said the amount of reserves doesn’t matter much unless a development technology is found that is economical and provides reasonable environmental safeguards.

The new study found an estimated 43.3 billion tons of nahcolite in the basin, often intermingled with oil shale. That’s a concern because nahcolite produces large quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when heated in oil shale processing, the study said.

Also, the government doesn’t want nahcolite destroyed during that processing because the mineral has value for several uses, including removing sulfur dioxide from smokestack emissions.


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