Oil Shale Recovery Faces Uncertain Future

Published August 1, 2005

The Bush administration is moving ahead with oil shale exploration. The federal Bureau of Land Management announced in June it will accept proposals for 160-acre research projects on federal lands across 16,000 miles in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming until September 7, according to the Denver Post. The 160-acre sites could be expanded to 5,100 acres if companies prove the technology to extract oil from shale is viable.

“With the price of oil so high, we expect a pretty good mix of companies who want to try and tap one of our biggest petroleum resources,” said Jim Edwards, chief of the state BLM office’s solid minerals branch.

Oil Prices Are Key

The key to viability is that oil prices stay high. According to the May 20 Greenwire, “efforts to tap U.S. shale reserves collapsed in the early 1980s when the price of oil plummeted.” For that reason, many companies aren’t exactly jumping at this technology.

Shell Exploration and Production Co., for example, has been experimenting with separating hydrocarbons from shale in Colorado for years, according to Greenwire. However, the company has made no decision regarding commercial development.

“It doesn’t sound like (a) research and development program if they’re willing to accept techniques that were rejected 25 years ago,” Bob Randall of Western Resource Advocates told the Denver Post.

Before a company has its site expanded and lease locked up for a decade, its technology will undergo environmental and technological analysis, Edwards told the Denver Post. “If we don’t believe a technology fits our environmental protection standards, we won’t approve the lease.”

Technology Still Uncertain

Some critics think Congress is moving too fast and that large scale oil shale production hasn’t been thoroughly studied.

Steve Smith, associate regional director of the Washington, DC advocacy group The Wilderness Society, told the June 23 Tracy Press that most U.S. oil shale would be more difficult to process than Alberta’s oil sands. It would have to be mined out of Western states using large amounts of water; one mining method, pumping superheated water into underground deposits, might seriously pollute groundwater. The heating, in turn, could create extensive air pollution, he claimed.

“The government shouldn’t be funding any of the research,” Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis, said. “Research should not be government-driven. There are a lot of potential technologies and fuel sources available. But it should be economically competitive on its own merits. Private companies should see the market return with or without government subsidies.

“Government should not intervene in the free marketplace to select one form of energy or another,” Burnett added. “Government should get out of the way and let the market work. Eliminate barriers to entry but do not select one form of energy or another. This applies to wind, solar, and all other energy sources, in addition to oil shale.”

— Greg McConnell