An oil boom launched by “fracking” has led energy leaders to take a second look at harnessing the potential of oil shale, a fossil fuel that energy firms largely abandoned the hope of harnessing in the 1980s.
No commercially viable method of producing oil shale exists, but American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard turned heads earlier this month when he predicted a game-changing technological breakthrough could allow the use of oil shale.
“To date, what we’ve seen is 100 years of promises and taxpayer funds for projects that have all gone belly up,” said Ellynne Bannon, a spokeswoman with spending watchdog group Checks and Balances Project.
Environmentalists abhor the prospect of trying to harness oil shale, which would involve extracting oil that is contained in rocks. Extraction methods so far use a considerable amount of fossil fuels and water, which is scarce in the West.
Yet before fracking — which injects a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to capture oil hidden under the rocks —many had thought accessing the oil and gas buried deep underground was too expensive.
Now — largely because of fracking — the U.S. is now projected to overtake Saudi Arabia to become the number one oil producer in the world by 2020.
Fracking allowed drillers to tap more natural gas, helping drive U.S. prices from $13.19 per million British thermal units in June 2008 down to $3.14 per million Btu as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That has industry and lawmakers alike bullish on finding technological breakthroughs to develop other energy sources once thought too expensive to access.
The developments are likely to put further political pressure on President Obama to allow more fossil fuel access, particularly given the slow U.S. economy.
Gerard thinks oil shale could be the next bonanza.
“Oil shale alone in three western states is three times the proven reserves of what Saudi Arabia holds today. The key to it is to access the ability to develop it, to find the technologies to extract it for domestic consumption and even potential exports going down the road,” Gerard said.
Tapping oil shale would mean heating rocks under intense pressure to separate the fuel contained within them. Energy firms have had some success in doing this in Estonia, but the practice is heavily subsidized.
A handful of firms are operating in the U.S. on research, development and design leases from the Interior Department. But many others have wound down or ended their U.S. oil shale activities.
The Obama administration’s approach so far has been to offer funds for research and development of oil shale, but not commercial leases, a policy praised by Bobby McEnaney, a senior lands analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“There is no sort of known way to get it out of the ground. So I think the administration is approaching this from a cautious perspective,” McEnaney said.
But Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) thinks the administration is going too slowly. He said he is likely to reintroduce legislation in this Congress that would call on the Interior Department to open up more land for oil shale development.
Lanborn’s PIONEERs Act would have Interior open 2 million acres for commercial oil shale development with a federal royalty rate of 5 percent.
It passed the House with 237 votes, 216 of which were Republicans, in the last Congress but did not receive a vote in the Senate.
Lamborn said the Obama administration has kept too much land off-limits to oil shale development. He said that has deterred investment, making it harder to strike a technological breakthrough.
“There’s tremendous potential there. It’s not yet in a commercially viable stage, but it is at least something that should be allowed to move forward in the research and development stage,” Lamborn said.
Potential can be elusive, said McEnaney, who noted that many energy firms have backed out of oil shale development.
He said Chevron has largely abandoned its research, development and design lease, and noted that Shell is curtailing its activities.
Bannon said many Coloradans are suspicious of oil shale promises after Exxon left overnight in 1982 in what became known as “Black Sunday.”
The company had entered Colorado hoping to harness oil shale, but failed, and took more than 2,000 jobs when it left.
“I think there’s a lot of people who have lived through the boom and bust, and they’re naturally skeptical,” Bannon said.
Still, McEnaney said the domestic energy boom might also have emboldened fossil fuel-friendly lawmakers to trumpet oil shale’s possibilities.
“So long as you have this what I would call mythical expectation that Colorado would be some Saudi Arabia of oil shale, this probably isn’t going away,” McEnaney said.
Energy firms are taking a “wait and see attitude before spending any big bucks to move the industry forward,” Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association, told The Hill.