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.
The solution of course is nuclear power to extract the oil, but there will still be a large "scar" where the oil shale has been mined. (Open pit I suspect). The answer is that it never has been free, energy will always take some toll on the environment.
But the time for this investment may not be here yet. We could dig in and find that more light sweet crude is available in the Middle East, (because we are being sandbagged) and the price could fall to below $30 and leave investors beholding to the government for the money to run the oil shale plant.
Of course we could and should start on the nuclear power now.
"However, that still leaves the problem of refineries -- where do you send it? "
The good part about this process is that the oil is collected almost refined as is. The benzenes and smaller alkanes are the first to get collected. Those are the gasolines and jet fuels. Followed by heavier stuff, which may be able to run the heaters.
The Rats will protest....."We must protect the prairie dogs
...for the varmit hunters Texasproud,Eaker,Squantos, and a few other freepers.
What I'd like to see additionally along these lines is the establishment of a good number of coal-oil facilities. Easy to build, easy to operate and comparatively inexpensive, technology well-known, and produce a nice clean product that's almost #2. Absolutely feasible (if built on/near existing pipe) w/crude at or above $26-27. Less than that, really, if one amortises the start-up cost over, say, 25 years.
Further, coal oil (if we would push it) would have the huge advantage of almost immediately reducing the amount of NG being burnt just to heat. NG should be feedstock, not fuel; it's much more valuable in that role.
something you might want to ping?
As asked earlier, how do they prevent an enormous loss of liquid via seepage?
"We need supplies and refining capacity NOW."
Yep. Problem is how much money will our oil companies put up, to make a future profit. And if they are willing, always goes back to decades of environemental wackos/congress keeping us from becoming totally oil independent as we once where.
As we have read for years, oil shale processes have come and gone, for various reasons. Unless you have a totally united congress and executive branch that would not change course for some twenty years on the issue, I don't see how what we all would like to see happen will come to past.
They probably suck em out and distill them into liquid.
I think it's about time we tell the environazis to go suck a rock. We must remember that their carping is designed on a plan to destroy our society.
It's a dichotomy; the liberal "contituency" support the (so-called) "leaders" because they think they share goals. But while the constituency wants for example religion destroyed because they don't want their behavior and attitudes to be held up to examination and judgement, the leadership wants it destroyed because they want Big Brother to be considered the source of natural rights, not God.
That way Big Brother can take away as easily as he gives. When I started evaluating liberals' behavior and statements in that light, I started seeing their ulterior motives a little more clearly.
Anyone want to take bets that the ecofacists will show up in force to denounce this big oil intrustion on to the sacred burial grounds of the dung beetle or whatever?
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.