Congressmen See Energy Answer in Oil Shale

Published August 1, 2008

Western congressmen, fully aware of rich oil shale resources concentrated in the Badlands of Wyoming, eastern Utah, and extreme western Colorado, are supporting legislation to remove federal prohibitions on oil shale recovery.

Energy experts have determined oil shale in the tri-state Badlands region can produce roughly 2 trillion barrels of crude oil. That would equal 500 years’ worth of U.S. oil imports from all countries combined.

Most of the oil shale is located beneath federal government lands, but the government currently does not allow oil shale recovery except in a few limited locations. The Badlands area is believed to be home to more than three-quarters of the world’s oil shale reserves.

Friendly to Environment

Roughly half-a-dozen companies have the technology to extract the oil from shale, and they are prepared to do so in an environmentally friendly manner, they say.

At the National Association of Counties Western Interstate Regional conference May 23 in St. George, Utah, Laura Nelson, Ph.D. described some of the latest environmentally friendly technology.

According to Nelson, a former energy advisor to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), new technology allows companies to heat the shale at relatively low temperatures underground and thereby coax the oil to the surface without disturbing groundwater aquifers.

EcoShale, the company that developed the technology, is able to extract the oil and restore the land to its original state in much less time than can happen with conventional mining.

Ban Blocks Recovery

In 2007, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) and Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) pushed through Congress a ban on the federal government developing rules that would govern any future oil shale exploration and production on federal lands. Without rules in place, no oil shale production can occur on those lands.

With gasoline at $4.00 per gallon and the United States holding enough oil shale reserves to displace oil imports from all countries combined for the next 500 years, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) has introduced the Oil Shale Opportunity Act, which would cut through red tape and allow President George W. Bush or his successor to bypass administrative rulemaking and allow oil shale exploration and production on federal lands.

Other Western congressmen, including Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO), also support efforts to tap the nation’s oil shale reserves, but their preferred approach is to free the federal government to undergo rulemaking regarding oil shale production.

Cannon is not shying away from taking on those in Congress who imposed the ban on oil shale production.

“We suspect the voters in their districts can put pressure on them to do something about high energy prices,” said Cannon in the June 10 Salt Lake Tribune. “And this is, by far, the best thing.”

Economic Arguments Refuted

In defending their ban on federal action, Salazar and Udall assert companies will not seek to produce oil shale unless oil prices remain more than $100 per barrel over an extended period of time.

“Even after $10 billion of research and development, nobody has figured an economical way to get it out,” said Salazar in the June 10 Salt Lake Tribune.

Nelson, who is vice president of energy and environmental development with EcoShale’s parent company, Red Leaf Resources, strongly disagrees.

She shied away from giving a precise crude oil price at which the company could make a profit, but she indicated oil prices are currently well above what is necessary for the company to begin large-scale oil shale recovery.

“We can produce oil from oil shale right now,” Nelson said in an interview for this article. “Our technologies are proven, and they work. We can produce oil economically and in an environmentally friendly manner. Our biggest hurdles are neither economical nor technological; they are policy hurdles.

“If the federal government will simply give us the green light, we can right now begin large-scale production of our vast oil shale resources with minimal impact on the environment,” Nelson continued.

Captures Greenhouse Gases

Nelson also noted oil shale technology allows for very efficient capture and sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have the potential to capture and sequester carbon dioxide in a much more economical and efficient manner than conventional oil production,” Nelson said.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.