Oil shale is neither oil nor shale. This finely-grained sedimentary rock – more properly known as organic marlstone – is infused with kerogen, not oil. Kerogen is a dense blend of ancient algae and pond scum, and is an essential ingredient in oil and natural gas. But transforming kerogen to oil requires millennia, coupled with intense heat and crushing geologic pressure. Otherwise the kerogen remains a relatively energy-poor waxy deposit in sedimentary rocks, such as oil shale.
The United States is home to huge deposits of oil shale, most of which can be found somewhere beneath the Rockies. But before rushing for our shovels, we must consider the costs. Is oil shale worth it?
Low energy density
Fuel sources are measured by their energy density – the amount of heat that can be generated per pound. The kerogen in oil shale, which was not refined by eons of heat and pressure, has a very low energy density. As a result, oil shale remains perhaps the poorest choice among the carbon-based fuels. For comparison, oil shale contains one-tenth the energy of crude oil, one-sixth that of coal and one-fourth that of dried cow manure. Pound for pound, oil shale has roughly the same energy density of a baked potato.
High energy demands
Energy speculators have flirted with oil shale since the late 1800s. Every oil shale boom eventually turns to bust when the returns fail to justify the costs. The rocks must first be heated to approximately 600-970°F. This cooks the kerogen, resulting in an oil-like substance known as shale oil. The shale oil then must be further modified to create a synthetic fuel that can be substituted for crude oil. The entire process requires massive inputs of heat, energy and water, and produces a volume of pollutants and gases.
Extreme environmental costs
Refining synthetic oil from shale is a dirty, thirsty and destructive process. Mining the rocks damages landscapes and ecosystems, increases erosion and pollutes water and air with acidic run-off, sulfur-gas emissions and air-borne particulates. Experimental attempts to convert kerogen without mining holds additional environmental risks, including groundwater pollution. The whole process – from extraction through conversion – may require five barrels of water per barrel of synthetic shale oil, if not more. The U.S. oil shale deposits lie within arid Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where citizens are concerned their sparse drinking water may be redirected to support environmentally damaging and wasteful oil shale speculation. Coupled with all this, producing and using oil from shale creates even more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum.
Oil Shale is Not the Answer
Environmentally destructive and prohibitively expensive, oil from shale is not worth the costs. Certainly we must secure our energy future, but oil shale should not be part of this process. This is not the fuel of the future. It’s time we recognize oil shale for what it is, a rock.
As always, the answer comes back to conservation and investment in alternative energies. These may not be easy or immediate answers, but they are the only ones that will work.
Related Articles On Natural Gas from Shale Rock:
Don’t count on natural gas to solve US energy problems – We often hear statements suggesting that by ramping up shale gas production, the US can raise total natural gas production and solve many of its energy problems. While there is the possibility that shale gas will allow US natural gas supplies to increase for a few years, it is doubtful this advantage will last for many years. Furthermore, the amount of coal and oil that need to be replaced are very high in relationship to natural gas production, so even a large increase in natural gas production would have a small effect. These are some of the reasons I think natural gas optimism is misplaced:
The Saudi-Scale U.S. Oil Reserves We Shouldn’t Tap – – Shale oil is low quality stuff that is hard and expensive to produce. In shale-land, the mother lode is a ton of rock that holds a mere 30 gallons of oil. Refine it and you’ll get 15 gallons of gasoline, barely enough to move one Honda Civic from Boston to Buffalo…
- Colorado — A three-year study in Garfield County detailed the migration of methane from fracking operations through natural faults into potable water supplies, but state regulators also fingered faulty casing work by EnCana Oil and Gas for water well contamination, fining the company $370,000.
- Pennsylvania — In a land of exploding water wells and quarantined cows, residents of Dimock, Pa., sued Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas in 2009 after a range of chemicals linked to fracking contaminated water wells. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection fined the company more than $240,000. However, the price tag associated with trucking in clean water to homeowners has been placed at more than $10 million.
- Wyoming — In September 2010, the EPA discovered water wells in Wyoming were contaminated with 2-butoexythanol phosphate, a common fracking fluid with a range of harmful human-health impacts, and instructed community residents not to drink their water. Indian Country Today reported residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation began using fans while bathing to reduce the risk of explosion. Meanwhile, lawmakers passed rules forcing oil and gas companies in the state to divulge the full list of chemicals used in fracking operations. In an echo of BP’s tussle with the Feds over the makeup of the dispersant Corexit, industry has argued to the EPA that such information must be kept secret as competitive trade information.
- New York — Following warnings that contaminated aquifers requiring the construction of industrial treatment plants would raise New York City water rates by a minimum of 30 percent, New York Governor David Paterson issued a statewide seven-month moratorium on “high-volume” fracking in December of 2010.
- North Texas — Jay Olaguer, director of air-quality research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, reported last summer that industry is regularly underestimating air emissions from fracking and natural-gas development in the DFW area. He reported that formaldehyde readings in one industry study — which reached 126 parts per billion at one DFW location — were “astoundingly high.” “I’ve never heard of ambient [formaldehyde] concentrations that high,” he told the Current, “except in Brazil where they use alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasohol for automobiles.” Beyond immediate public-health impacts associated with breathing formaldehyde, the chemical is also a powerful precursor to the creation of ground-level ozone.
- Nationwide — A wide-ranging EPA study was launched last year after the agency acknowledged “there are serious concerns from citizens and their representatives about hydraulic fracturing’s potential impact on drinking water, human health, and the environment.” Initial findings on the feasibility of fracking are expected to be released in late 2012.
Texas Landowners Sue Oil Companies for Water Contamination During Hydraulic Fracking – Austin, TX (Law Firm Newswire) January 21, 2011 – Gregory D. Jordan, an experienced Austin oil and gas attorney, Austin business lawyer and business litigation lawyer offers commentary on recent suits.
Two recently filed lawsuits in Texas argue that hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale has caused significant groundwater contamination. One suit has been filed pertaining to property in Tarrant County and a similar suit has been filed covering property in Denton County. The Tarrant County suit names Chesapeake Energy and Encana Oil & Gas as Defendants. The Barnett Shale field is a massive natural gas producer, but because the shale is an almost impermeable formation, essentially all of the wells in the field must undergo a process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in order to produce gas. Fracking is the process in which millions of gallons of water are mixed with chemicals and other materials and are injected under extremely high pressure into the wellbore. This fractures the rock and allows channels to develop through which the gas can migrate to the wellbore.
Gas fracking may already be lowering water tables in South Texas January 6th, 2011. by Robert Crowe | The San Antonio Current – This time around, the wells are drilled horizontally, and then there’s the potential that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” will have long-term effects on South Texas water tables in a region that has long struggled with drought. A typical fracked well in Karnes County uses 3 to 6 million gallons of water, which is pumped thousands of feet underground to release oil and gas from the shale formation.
Many in Karnes County welcome the boom, but the water issue keeps confronting the oil industry. “They already know they’re gonna run this area out of water; there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” said Braudaway, whose livelihood still depends on oilfield services. For some folks, the water future of South Texas boils down to simple math – when you suddenly pull millions of gallons from local aquifers without replenishing that supply, there’s going to be less for homes, farms, and ranches. “We know it’s happening because our water well has already dropped in just three months,” said Allan Hedtke, a Karnes City resident. In spite of off-and-on drought conditions, Hedtke’s well held steady at 225 feet below ground for years before suddenly dropping to 300 feet last fall. Hedtke and neighbors with similar experiences feel strongly that the recent drilling and oil production activity nearby caused the change. “I can’t prove it’s them, but there’s no other explanation,” he said.
PBS interview with filmmaker Josh Fox about his movie ‘Gasland’, a documentary about ‘fracking’ – “The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a “Saudia Arabia of natural gas” just beneath us. But is fracking safe? When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled nearby Pennsylvania town reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country called GASLAND. Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown.”
Pennsylvania cattle quarantined from gas fracking contamination – Agriculture officials have quarantined 28 beef cattle on a Pennsylvania farm after wastewater from a nearby gas well leaked into a field and came in contact with the animals. As High Country News summarizes, fracking has brought the West “polluted wastewater problems, large scale habitat disturbance, methane leaks from pipelines, and potentially serious health impacts that come along with the use of toxic chemicals in hydraulic fracturing.” And as this article on Civil Eats suggests, even heavily regulated fracking could be enough to destroy much of New York’s Hudson Valley farmland. After all, how many cattle quarantines or lost crops does it take to put a farmer out of business? Answer: not many.
Freaked out by Fracking – Jan 17, 2011 – Evidence from the US suggests shale gas extraction brings a significant risk of ground and surface water contamination and until the evidence base is developed a precautionary approach to development in the UK and Europe is the only responsible action. There is little to suggest that shale gas will play a key role as a transition fuel in the move to a low carbon economy.
New York State Scrutinizes ‘Fracking’ Due to Water Contamination Concerns – New York is putting a hold on the practice of drilling for natural gas by injecting chemicals into the ground. The technique is called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and it has an alleged record of contaminating drinking water in Wyoming and Texas. The EPA found benzene and other petroleum compounds in water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, that are thought to have come from fracking. Seventeen of 19 wells were contaminated in the town of 166 people. Chemicals are used in the process to help the materials flow and keep the sandstone open. Besides benzene there are chemicals used such as toluene, xylene, napthalene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol and formaldehyde, just to name a few.