Eckstrand’s perspective will be missed on oil shale development

I’d intended to write about oil shale this week, but in a very different way. 

This is the week the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is holding four meetings about proposed revisions in ground rules for development of oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The first of those meetings was held last night in Silt. Others are scheduled tonight in Vernal, Utah, tomorrow night in Salt Lake City and Thursday night in Rock Springs, Wyo.

It would have been timely to discuss differences between the “no action” alternative that would leave in place Bush-era regulations that mandate speculative commercial leasing of millions of acres of federal land in the three states and more restrictive alternatives, including the one favored by Colorado, that would limit new leasing to about 30,000 acres and restrict activity to additional research.

Then came word last Friday that Bill Eckstrand had died in Denver earlier in the week, just shy of 30 years from the time he arrived in western Colorado with the unenviable task of shuttering Exxon’s oil shale operations in the aftermath of “Black Sunday.” 

My last conversation with Bill was about those times. It came almost two years ago, as I was preparing a piece about the 30th anniversary of Exxon’s “White Paper.” That infamous document predicted future development of synthetic fuels, including oil shale, even more extravagant than is being touted today by some in Congress and elsewhere anxious to make political hay out of a technology where “10 more years” remains the mantra of those in the know.

“There are two questions really,” he said as we contrasted expectations then and now during a long lunch in Denver. “One is what could happen. The other is what might happen. Those are really two different things.” 

Today, on the “could” side, we hear talk of “the next Saudi Arabia,” where trillions of barrels of oil are supposedly available if only we could unlock every last gallon from the “rock that burns.”

That’s the side of the equation touted by politicians and others anxious to appear to be solving energy supply and price issues.

On the “might” side, the folks involved in the research are having trouble cashing those checks written by Utah’s congressional delegation and some from Colorado, such as Rep. Doug Lamborn and even our own congressman, Scott Tipton.

One major company, Chevron, recently tossed in the towel on its research and development efforts. Others still moving forward — with technologies focused not on extracting all of those trillions of barrels of oil, but only the barrels in the richest layers — continue with more modest expectations.

It’s worth noting that even the Estonians, the folks oil shale proponents tout as having a workable technology, only produced enough motor fuel from their oil shale last year to meet daily U.S. demands for perhaps the same amount of time it took to read this sentence.

Back in the spring of 2010, Bill Eckstrand didn’t just talk about how oil shale might be developed on a commercial scale.

“The other side of that” he said, “is whether it’s realistic to expect Colorado, Utah, and to some extent Wyoming to absorb those impacts ... whether it’s realistic that the industry could mitigate some of those impacts sufficiently to actually ever grow to that size.” 

“This is the time to be planning it together,” Eckstrand urged, “not to be going off into respective corners and saying this is the way it has to be.”

It was clear in our last conversation that Bill Eckstrand was proud of his work at Exxon, not only of the caring way in which he tried to manage a difficult post-Black Sunday shutdown, but also of his longer engagement in the company’s efforts to develop oil shale and other synthetic fuels in a time of national need. 

“The biggest lesson,” he told me back then, “is that rather than everybody standing in their respective corners taking shots at each other, which is unproductive, it’s a whole lot more productive to have representatives of these organizations sit down together and try to design a program that would work ... If oil shale were to start coming back again, I would hope that something like that would happen.”

That sort of sound advice, from someone who helped manage both the highs and lows of the last time, will be missed.

Jim Spehar is contemplating what he heard last night in Silt in the context of Bill Eckstrand’s advice. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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