Friday, September 05, 2008

BLM Issues EIS for Oil Shale and Tar Sands

The Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management has issued a final environmental impact statement to open 2.4 million acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to oil-shale and tar-sands development. The 1,800-page environmental-impact statement is the first step towards figuring out how to get to this oil in an environmental friend and economically viable manner. According to the BLM plan, getting at the oil will require the construction of a 1,500- to 2,400-megawatt power plant and about three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. Two very large nuclear plants should be used to generate this electrical capacity. The technologies to extract the oil are still experimental, making it difficult to know the real impact.

Despite Thursday's release of the final environmental-impact statement, extraction of oil shale won't happen anytime soon. The BLM is still blocked by congressional moratorium from issuing a plan to actually lease the land, and it could be years before the technology to actually extract the oil is perfected. Commercial leasing of oil shale will not occur for at least a decade because companies have yet to develop mature technologies. If Congress lifts the moratorium and the BLM is able to issue a Record of Decision on those proposed rules, then companies could potentially nominate lands for commercial oil shale leases. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 declared “oil shale and other unconventional fuels to be strategically important domestic energy sources that should be developed to reduce the nation’s growing dependence on imported oil.

Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing organic matter from which oil may be produced, either through heat or a chemical process. According to the Interior Department, the deposits under Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have about three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that there are 800 million barrels of oil in the shale and sands, which is enough to meet the U.S. demand for imported oil for 110 years.

Most research into oil shale recovery in Colorado is focusing on in-situ processing, which means extracting hydrocarbons without having to mine oil shale. Many in the area recognize Shell as the leader in that effort.The current plan by Shell Exploration and Production is to lower electrical heaters into the rock formation and heat it to 650 to 700 degrees over a period of three to four years. When the oil shale gets to a suitable temperature, the hydrocarbon material — called kerogen — becomes a vapor. When it is pulled to the surface, it cools and condenses to produce a liquid that is two-thirds oil and one-third natural gas.The company is also developing a “freeze-wall” technology that is intended to build a frozen wall that protects the surrounding water formations from hydrocarbons during the oil shale conversion process. The freeze wall sounds like science fiction to us. Get the PEI.

[Hat tip: Gristmill, Sources: The Daily Sentinel, Post Independent, Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post]

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