Shell builds oil shale arena near Meeker

Circular facility uses technique called freeze-wall extraction

DENNIS WEBB/The Daily Sentinel
PIPE WORK about an acre in size has been built at a Shell experimental oil shale project southwest of Meeker. An ammonia refrigerant injected by a circular set-up of pipes creates an underground wall, which prevents contamination of groundwater outside the barrier. Groundwater is removed inside the barrier, where oil shale is heated and kerogen and natural gas are brought to the surface.

In a remote valley southwest of Meeker, a tangle of pipes surrounds a parcel much like a fence corrals a rodeo arena.

The pipes’ purpose is to create an underground corral that provides a barrier to groundwater movement and protect water from contamination during oil shale extraction.

This is the site of Shell’s latest phase of research into a possible means of recovering oil from shale.

The pipes go as deep as 1,850 feet and circulate an ammonia refrigerant used to create a freeze wall. Shell is developing a process to heat up oil shale underground and bring kerogen and natural gas through wells to the surface. The plan is to remove groundwater in the area to be heated, and use the wall to protect surrounding water from contamination.

On Thursday, just a few truck drivers and other workers toiled around the freeze-wall test site, on Shell-owned land.

“It’s not the most exciting thing to look at because everything’s taking place underground. It’s like watching a submarine race. You just have to know what’s going on down there,” said Tracy Boyd, a Shell spokesman.

Boyd said Shell engineers have been able to analyze a lot of data being provided by monitors measuring everything from water levels to temperatures.

Unlike Shell research going on beneath the surface and out of the public eye, the politics surrounding oil shale recently have attracted lots of headlines. With gasoline topping $4 a gallon earlier this year, pressure has mounted to remove obstacles to eventual commercial oil shale development. Just this month, one obstacle went away with the expiration of a congressional moratorium on developing final rules for commercial oil shale leasing on public land.

Opponents to issuing the rules say it’s premature, with all the unknowns about environmental impacts and water, electricity and work force needs related to shale technologies that are still in development. But Shell is glad the rules may be forthcoming this year and is particularly interested in learning how much the government plans to charge for royalties.

“You can’t prove viability of your technology without knowing what your costs will be,” Boyd said.

Shell is hoping to eventually convert its three 160-acre federal research and development leases into commercial leases that each would cover about eight square miles.

That acreage sits in the heart of shale country in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, which holds some 90 percent of recoverable U.S. oil shale reserves. Those U.S. reserves, which total about 800 billion barrels, are three times the proven oil reserves in Saudi Arabia.

If Shell’s method proves economically and environmentally feasible, it hopes to commercially develop 1,000-foot-thick deposits of shale buried under a rolling landscape of sagebrush, pinon pine and juniper in northwest Colorado.

However, leasing and development would require additional environmental reviews that could take 10 to 12 years to complete, Boyd said. Shell has yet to even begin work on any of its three R&D lease sites, he noted.


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