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Report Casts Negative Eye on Oil Shale in Colorado

March 14, 2012
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Citing commercial, environmental and technological uncertainties, the environmental group Western Resource Advocates (WRA) released a report casting doubts on oil shale, and emphasizing its distinct differences with shale gas and shale oil.

"The technologies necessary to develop oil shale are unproven and fundamentally different from shale oil and shale gas technologies," according to WRA's Oil Shale 2050 report.

Unlike shale oil, which is produced from deposits which contain petroleum, oil shale contains significant amounts of kerogen, which is a mixture of organic chemical compounds. Extracting oil shale resources requires heating the shale rock to very high temperatures, an expensive process compared to conventional oil or shale oil development.

Boulder, CO-based WRA, which has also published recent studies on water supply and demand in growing urban parts of Colorado, raised a number of red flags concerning the production of oil shale.

"We looked at this issue inside and out, and based on extensive research, we can't find a good reason why commercial oil shale development should be pursued in the West," said WRA oil shale policy advisor David Abelson. "Oil shale would foul our air and water, soak up enormous amounts of water and disrupt local economies."

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) does not get involved in oil shale, so it had no reaction to the WRA report. However, COGA's West Slope affiliate does have active members that are oil shale leaseholders in the main part of the state where potential activity exists. "We do have a localized interest in public policy surrounding oil shale," said David Ludlam, head of the West Slope affiliate.

Noting that the industry has been underestimated before on its ability to make shale gas and tight oil economically viable, Ludlam chided WRA for believing that the industry won't eventually develop a "technology based, socially responsible vehicle for commercial oil shale production." He said the conservation organization is again "underestimating the creative enterprise of our member companies," which include ExxonMobil and Total SA.

Earlier this year, a report by several Colorado state agencies projected 35% growth by 2015 in the use of water for hydraulic fracturing connected with shale gas and oil, but concluded it would still be only a minute portion of the state's future water use (see Shale Daily, Jan. 30). More recently, WRA released a report on future water supply and demand in the Arkansas Basin portion of the state, but it specifically noted that oil/gas growth in the state was not factored into the future water needs.

"At stake in the debate over oil shale are water supplies and how states would balance competing needs for this dwindling resource," the WRA report said.

The nonprofit conservation group called for oil shale to be more closely scrutinized for its potential climate impacts. The report alleged that oil shale could produce roughly 25-75% more greenhouse gases (GHG) than comparable quantities of conventional crude oil. This could conflict with Colorado's goal of reducing GHG emissions in the state 80% by 2050.

"As states take steps to balance competing resource needs, they must understand that pursuing oil shale would diminish water supplies and pollute the air we breathe -- damaging at least two essential resources to extract a questionable one," WRA's report stated.

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