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.
Interesting article. Thanks for posting it.
I've heard that there are substantial deposits of shale oil here in the US - but economicaly, it's been unfeasable to drill for it.
Hopefully, this one will work.
One article says the reserves in the Green River deposit located in Wyoming/Utah/Colorado holds 3X the reserves of Saudi Arabia. Not a bad deal.
The US should do this on a massive scale, even if we just break even, for national security purposes and to SCREW OPEC.
If they will not allow the small footprint operation near ANWR
Never happen..not because it's not a wonderful technology, but the envrio-weenies will scream that we're going to destroy the habitat of the green-multi-toed-gila-lizard, even though it occupies only 1/2,500,000 of the intended drilling zone..but I agree, we gotta do something and the reserves in the U.S. would allow us to tell OPEC to go do something to themselves that is physically impossible..
OMG, can you imagine? We would be totally free of dependence on other countries for oil! That would be incredible.
Good post. Look at the Northern Rocky Mountains States and High Great Plains region USA/Canada, they have abundant domestic natural gas, coal bed natural gas, and coal and oil-shale and nuclear resources, so vast as to supply America's energy needs for at least 300-500 year to around $100 TRILLION. The Northern regions are the FUTURE for the USA and our energy companies, we don't need to go Hat-in-Hand overseas for our energy needs.
Shale oil uneconomical at prices below $30bbl. However, we have been considerably above $30bbl for sometime now. My husband has been saying this for weeks -- that we should be moving ahead with shale oil recovery. However, that still leaves the problem of refineries -- where do you send it?
The second part of his thesis is to build refineries on decommissioned military bases -- spread overa many sections of the country so that they are not such a big target for natural, or manmade, disaster. The Federal government has control over military land, and I think they would not need permits -- California and Florida enviro-weenies be damned!
My contribution to this thesis (and I thought of this days before Michael Savage mentioned it on air) is to re-open housing for refugees on those same decommissioned bases and employ the displaced workers to build the refineries! (Walk to work.) The women can be employed in clerical, or service jobs associated with constructing the refineries, or educating the children who live there. Outside teachers could be brought in if needed. Three problems solved at one shot and at minimal cost to the taxpayer.
This would be similar to WPA and CCC projects during the Depression. Win, win, win. We reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we rehabilitate displaced workers, we house and rebuild displaced families.
Alright, but it took them ten months to get 1,500 barrels of oil. That is not enough.
The Rats will protest....."We must protect the prairie dogs!"
hey no vulgar acronyms in my thread!
~ bookmarked ~
Now that Bush is a lame duck, maybe it's time for some executive orders to get this moving.... like Clinton did in the opposite direction.
what you're implying is that the evacuees coming out of new orleans learn to fend for themselves? who knows, it might work but you're still going to have a percentage of them (no idea what that percentage would be) that will still want Uncle Sam to take care of them..but, excellent idea..:)