U.S. can lead in environmentally sensitive oil shale development

By Curtis H. Moore

The world is about to face some colossal energy challenges. This recession won’t last forever. And, when the world economy recovers in earnest, we will again see sky-high oil and gasoline prices.

Populations around the world are becoming healthier, more educated and more affluent. This is a good thing, as billions of people worldwide do not have the energy and transportation choices Americans enjoy.

For instance, only 3 percent of Chinese citizens own a car. A doubling of Chinese vehicle ownership to 6 percent will add tens of millions of cars to the road.

We are aggressively developing alternatives to oil such as natural gas, ethanol and new electrical generation. Still, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects world oil demand will increase 30 percent by 2035.

Whether we like it or not, the world will depend on oil for the foreseeable future. Although the Earth is not running out of oil, we are running out of cheap oil. More expensive technologies like enhanced oil recovery, deep-water drilling and oil sands are used extensively today. But these methods are far from perfect.

Another solution may be oil shale. Unlike past efforts at development, today’s worldwide economics and technology advancements may be aligning to make this resource a viable solution.

Two weeks ago, Colorado School of Mines in Golden hosted the 30th Annual Oil Shale Symposium. There were 262 attendees from 20 countries. It was fascinating to see the progress being made around the globe to solve the oil shale puzzle.

America has the largest reserves of oil shale in the world. We could end our dependence on foreign oil for decades if we chose to develop a fraction of our best oil shale reserves.

Most importantly, the technical and environmental issues are being solved.

For instance, research is showing we likely have enough water for oil shale production in the West — if we choose to use some of it for energy production. Oil shale production will not dry up our farms and ranches.

Increasingly, the biggest hurdles to American oil shale development are in the political, educational and public-relations arenas.

Some of the most interesting information at the oil shale symposium came from other countries. Estonia is becoming the world leader in oil shale expertise, developing technologies that comply with strict EU environmental standards. China plans to double its capacity for oil shale production next year. Brazil, Jordan, Morocco, Australia and Israel are investing heavily in oil shale.

No energy source is perfect. All have their costs and benefits. People who repeat the mantra that “cleaner energy is better” simplify the issue to child-like levels.

We have to look at the costs and benefits of all energy sources. For instance, renewable energy is extremely exciting. But, it is very expensive and has immense land and mineral needs. We will need lots of “dirty” surface and underground mines for renewables. And, widespread deployment of renewables may create so-called “national sacrifice zones” that denude thousands of square miles of land of vegetation and wildlife. Yet, most people — myself included — believe we should still research and develop these technologies.

Like it or not, the world will rely on oil for decades. And, oil shale may — or may not — be a part of the solution.  But, sound-bites about “unacceptable” water use, “sacrifice zones,” or calling oil shale a “dirty fuel” don’t solve America’s daunting energy challenges. Science, technology, and economics should guide the issue.

America can be a world leader in oil shale technology and environmental protection. Or, we can give up and continue to rely on other countries to provide our energy for us.

Curtis H. Moore is executive director of Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale. He lives in Grand Junction.


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