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.
From my understanding, isn't that was the ice walls are designed to accomplish? I understand that that would create a walled structure leaving the bottom open. I assume though that the shale and rock would maybe act as a liner on the bottom? I'm sure the engineers thinking of this already figured that out.
The article states: 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.
"Shale oil" isn't even real oil. It's a substance called kerogen, which is an oil precursor. It requires considerable, energy-intensive processing to turn it into usable products, like gasoline, diesel and heating oil. It also has required considerable amounts of water to process, which is in very short supply in the intermountain west, unlike northern Alberta.
The article states: "Product" - about one-third natural gas, two-thirds light crude
Seattle Times By Jennifer Talhelm, AP
Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON The United States has an oil reserve at least three times that of Saudi Arabia locked in oil-shale deposits beneath federal land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, according to a study released yesterday.
But the researchers at the RAND think tank caution the federal government to go carefully, balancing the environmental and economic impacts with development pressure to prevent an oil-shale bust later.
"We've got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East," said James Bartis, RAND senior policy researcher and the report's lead author. ...
For years, the industry and the government considered oil shale a rock that produces petroleum when heated too expensive to be a feasible source of oil. However, oil prices, which spiked above $70 a barrel this week, combined with advances in technology could soon make it possible to tap the estimated 500 billion to 1.1 trillion recoverable barrels, the report found.
The study, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, comes about a month after the president signed a new energy policy dramatically reversing the nation's approach to oil shale and opening the door within a few years to companies that want to tap deposits on public lands.
The report also says oil-shale mining, above-ground processing and disposing of spent shale cause significant adverse environmental impacts. Shell Oil is working on a process that would heat the oil shale in place, which could have less effect on the environment.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company
Wonder if they could use the radioactive waste in the holding tanks destined for Nevada as a heat source. Two birds with one stone....
50m bbls/sqmi wouldn't be bad.
Obviously, I only skimmed when I should have read carefully.
The technique described leaves a lot of material that could be likened to heavy oil in the ground as it pulls out the lighter factions.
I'd like to see this work, but I'll believe the 3.5:1 when I see it. I guess I've been reading too much EnergyResources on yahoo.
For the person who suggested nuclear, you might want to consider the eastern shales. There's plenty of water for both cooling and processing in the east, and there's a potential deposit in Tennessee (I believe), that will also yield uranium. In addition, the eastern shales are supposed to plump up much more with the hydrogen addition than are western shales.
I will be interesting to see how this plays out this time around.
BTTT. Hope that work I did for Suncor Canada helps out.
We start by un-electing the dolts that have led us into this mess. I have worked in enviromental matters for thirty years. We passed the point of diminishing returns on environmental protection a long time ago.
I'm not an environazi but I have seen dung beetles in action and I have nothing but the greatest respect for their perseverance and tenacity. They will struggle, push, pull, and strain for hours to wrestle a dried out turd, fifty times their size and weight and basically worthless, over hills and through valleys until they arrive at their destination ... congress.
I sure hope you are right, but don't expect them to go down with out an awful lot of crying, screaming, and in general having one hissy-fit after another. I've never seen people with such an intense hatred of America and capitalism in all my days. These environmentalists make me want to puke!
"We would be totally free of dependence on other countries for oil! That would be incredible."
That would mean quite a legacy for W if the Repubs were smart enough to push it.
"I have worked in enviromental matters for thirty years. We passed the point of diminishing returns on environmental protection a long time ago."
Understand. Problem is getting congress and those running for POTUS to understand that.
They don't give a sh*t. All they want is politcal power. I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire.
Sounds too complex to be viable to me. Also, it did not give the ratio of energy used to heat vs the energy extracted.
"They don't give a sh*t. All they want is politcal power. I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire."
And there lies the underlining problem. As for pissing on them if they where on fire. Smart move, they might emit truely noxious gases. Hang in there.
Atlas needs to Shrug.
"Atlas needs to Shrug."
Might help losen up those sedimentary layers to drip more oil out. Ya. Men/Women of ability are hard to find in this fast talk world.
The problem is that it cost the Saudis $4 a barrel to get oil out of their deserts. The have a HUGE built in price advantage that shale will never overcome.
The easily forseen (and thus avoidable) hard knock that always results every time the half-baked ideas of Marxist DemocRATS are allowed to be put into practice, is sadly what it always takes to wake up the wishy-washy "moderates".
I think you're probably spot on or very close. I should have thought it through a bit more, evidently.
Therein lies the problem. If it costs them $4/barrel to get out product that zero value to non-raghead, human, non-muslim primates because we won't do business with them.....I can dream can't I? We have no honor. ($1.99/gal? WHERE? TELL ME! PLEEEEASE!!!))
They have got to be on our boycott list.
Right you are. Another element in cost analysis is the savings in military costs. Without being dependent on foreign oil our entire foreign policy could change. We would not really need a military establishment at the level it now is. I'm pro-military but I would like to see them all home and defending only the U.S. and its' territories. The need to project power would be drastically reduced. The savings would probaably be on the order of 75%. Lots of bucks. Energy independence is, IMHO, a national security matter of the utmost urgency.
Yes it did. 3.5/1
"Not a problem. They can have political power if we get cheap energy, and if we don't they can run checkout at WalMart. They will get the message."
All have the message. Have had for some thirty years. As for as cheap energy on a national scale. Energy sources and how they are used are only part of the equation. We shall always need petroleum based products, that are not obtainable from other sources. Such as lubricants, jet fuel, heating oil, natural gas for cooking/home heating etc., and the diverse fractions that come from petroleum oil for literally hundreds of thousands of end products, not to mentioned all the required derived chemicals used in so many processes.
We need oil, and I am not talking about plant derived oils such as corn, cotton seed, soybean etc.. They cannot be cracked to obtain the extremely short list I make mention of above. It is all a bit more complicated then many of us understand believe me.
9/1/2005 Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a dangerous embarrassment
We went from jungle to rain forest, swamp to wetland... What can "desert" be turned into? "Sun-surfeited biome" maybe?
The cost of producing Saudi oil is only $3 per barrel but the value of their as yet untapped reserves is more than that by quite a bit. That is why they can deliver oil at a profit.
The prospect of producing oil from shale in the US for $30 per barrel also explains why it is unlikely that world oil prices can remain as high as they are. How much shale oil will be produced if the world price of crude falls to $28? Practically none.
I believe that it is impossible for the US to reduce its dependence on foreign oil as long as the Saudis continue pumping.
I'll say it too. Wow.
bump for later
Let the heathen Sa-uds pound sand, PIIINNGGGG
"As asked earlier, how do they prevent an enormous loss of liquid via seepage?"
I don't know. Sorry. I'm sure the pumping system is in place around the localized heating to get the majority, however.
Shale may never overcome the price advantage that the Saudis currently enjoy, but unless they decide to engage in a price war, I think there is plenty of room for profit at $50-$60 per barrel. Shell says their recovery method is profitable at $30 per barrel, and that seemed to be the price break with previous methods too. They were doing a lot of shale extraction in the 1970s, and then it died off when prices fell.
My husband says that they could probably get an operation up and running in three months. Let's hope those hearings go well. This would be a real boon to the economy of the mountain states where most of the shale is located. And we could be calling the shots for once.
It was a small pilot project.
My premise is that they would have to apply for these jobs and be eager to move there. Anyone not cooperating, or misbehaving, would be kicked out.