Skip to comments.Shell's Ingenious Approach To Oil Shale Is Pretty Slick
Posted on 09/03/2005 1:58:07 PM PDT by Mount Athos
When oil prices last touched record highs - actually, after adjusting for inflation we're not there yet, but given the effects of Hurricane Katrina, we probably will be soon - politicians' response was more hype than hope. Oil shale in Colorado! Tar sands in Alberta! OPEC be damned!
Remember the Carter-era Synfuels Corp. debacle? It was a response to the '70s energy shortages, closed down in 1985 after accomplishing essentially nothing at great expense, which is pretty much a description of what usually happens when the government tries to take over something that the private sector can do better. Private actors are, after all, spending their own money.
Since 1981, Shell researchers at the company's division of "unconventional resources" have been spending their own money trying to figure out how to get usable energy out of oil shale. Judging by the presentation the Rocky Mountain News heard this week, they think they've got it.
Shell's method, which it calls "in situ conversion," is simplicity itself in concept but exquisitely ingenious in execution. Terry O'Connor, a vice president for external and regulatory affairs at Shell Exploration and Production, explained how it's done (and they have done it, in several test projects):
Drill shafts into the oil-bearing rock. Drop heaters down the shaft. Cook the rock until the hydrocarbons boil off, the lightest and most desirable first. Collect them.
Please note, you don't have to go looking for oil fields when you're brewing your own.
On one small test plot about 20 feet by 35 feet, on land Shell owns, they started heating the rock in early 2004. "Product" - about one-third natural gas, two-thirds light crude - began to appear in September 2004. They turned the heaters off about a month ago, after harvesting about 1,500 barrels of oil.
While we were trying to do the math, O'Connor told us the answers. Upwards of a million barrels an acre, a billion barrels a square mile. And the oil shale formation in the Green River Basin, most of which is in Colorado, covers more than a thousand square miles - the largest fossil fuel deposits in the world.
They don't need subsidies; the process should be commercially feasible with world oil prices at $30 a barrel. The energy balance is favorable; under a conservative life-cycle analysis, it should yield 3.5 units of energy for every 1 unit used in production. The process recovers about 10 times as much oil as mining the rock and crushing and cooking it at the surface, and it's a more desirable grade. Reclamation is easier because the only thing that comes to the surface is the oil you want.
And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.
But ice is impermeable to water. So around the perimeter of the productive site, you drill lots more shafts, only 8 to 12 feet apart, put in piping, and pump refrigerants through it. The water in the ground around the shafts freezes, and eventually forms a 20- to 30-foot ice barrier around the site.
Next you take the water out of the ground inside the ice wall, turn up the heat, and then sit back and harvest the oil until it stops coming in useful quantities. When production drops, it falls off rather quickly.
That's an advantage over ordinary wells, which very gradually get less productive as they age.
Then you pump the water back in. (Well, not necessarily the same water, which has moved on to other uses.) It's hot down there so the water flashes into steam, picking up loose chemicals in the process. Collect the steam, strip the gunk out of it, repeat until the water comes out clean. Then you can turn off the heaters and the chillers and move on to the next plot (even saving one or two of the sides of the ice wall, if you want to be thrifty about it).
Most of the best territory for this astonishing process is on land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. Shell has applied for a research and development lease on 160 acres of BLM land, which could be approved by February. That project would be on a large enough scale so design of a commercial facility could begin.
The 2005 energy bill altered some provisions of the 1920 Minerals Leasing Act that were a deterrent to large-scale development, and also laid out a 30-month timetable for establishing federal regulations governing commercial leasing.
Shell has been deliberately low-key about their R&D, wanting to avoid the hype, and the disappointment, that surrounded the last oil-shale boom. But O'Connor said the results have been sufficiently encouraging they are gradually getting more open. Starting next week, they will be holding public hearings in northwest Colorado.
I'll say it again. Wow.
by the way..what's the cost of uninhabited land in Colorado?? (not that I'd be interested in leasing it to oil companies)..:)
no worries I do it myself, trying to swear less
Nooooo! We must SAVE the land for the spotted snot fly and the narrow leaf shitweed!
Great news! Until the environuts do everything in their power to stop the spoiling of the "unspoiled Colorado wilderness."
I'm predicting that Katrina will deal a crippling blow to enviroweenies as well as 99% of anyti-military sentiment.
It was a small-scale test -- a lab experiment to determine economics and feasibility.
Forget it. Go with corn. It's the new oil.
But this was only a small test plot, 20 x 30 ft. And they turned off the heaters after getting that 1,500 barrels, because all they wanted to do was prove that the technology works.
I don't doubt that a large full-scale production effort will yield much, much more.
"Great news! Until the environuts do everything in their power to stop the spoiling of the "unspoiled Colorado wilderness.""
Screw them..if the people of Colorado say yes, then yes it is..the enviro-weenies can walk to work if they don't want to buy the gas that comes out of the wells..
Is it easily expandable? That is the question. Or are they going to have to drill one million holes, each one producing 1,500 barrels in 10 months?
bookmarked for later reading/research
"Forget it. Go with corn. It's the new oil."
So are you suggesting somehow one can crack all the fractions, e.g. benzene, naptha, etc., desiel/jet/heating fuels, upward to various classes of gasoline etc., from corn oil?
If not, don't we still need petro oil, to provide us with the literally thousands of fractions that are then used for making hundreds of thousands of end products, e.g. pharmeceuticals, plastics obviously of thousands of types, lubricants of all varieties along with the chemicals that they require to perform in a given way........blah blah blah, endlessly. Will corn oil provide all those end products we depend on and industry cannot exists without?
"Economical" is a function of BOTH cost of production AND the price you can sell it for.
In this case, the biggest variable is "what can we expect to sell it for over the next "x" year?". Up until now, the oil companies have been operating under the assumption that, over the long term, they'll be unable to sell oil above that price.
Fight for an Energy-Independant USA...NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Then, first phase, you target something on the order of 1/2 of estimated possible production. And ramp up from there. Call it 2-3 years on a ''crash'' basis, 5 on a ''normal'' basis.
Once the process is started, it's self-propagating, assuming only that new shafts are added on a systematic basis.
What I can't figure out (doubtless Shell have figured it, of course) is how to capture the liquid fractions. Why won't they just seep away?
Any thoughts, folks?
That is a pretty damned good idea.
How 'bout natural gas....we need that to make fertilizer.
No gas? Uh, Houston, we have a problem.
Drill now. Build now.
We need supplies and refining capacity NOW.