Oil Shale Decision Right On

The U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to limit land leases on oil shale — a euphemism for rock mixed with kerogen with the energy content of french fries — was wise. I wrote up a story pitch after the Bush Administration decision to vastly expand oil shale leasing  in 2008; it offers some perspective on the new approach, which reflects Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s skepticism of the energy source.

In brief, Interior simply said if Shell and others in the oil business can prove that the costs, water and energy inputs, and environmental damage associated with isolating and cooking —  to like 700 degrees F, for 2-3 years — all that buried kerogen is worth it, then the government will reconsider opening up some portion of the Bush cadre’s 2-million-acre gift. Until then, you’ve got 722 square miles (ten times the area of Washington D.C.) in three states to prove your case.

Doing otherwise is like reserving vast bodies of water for hydrogen fusion startups.

oil shale nugget

Kereogen-infused rock, a.k.a. oil shale

The usual cacophony of oil-bought politicians are expressing outrage. But any claims that oil shale is a realistic fix for our petro-addiction must be taken with extreme skepticism. The Center of the American West did a great write-up on oil shale five years ago, still valid today. And here’s my pitch:

For a century, petroleum reserves triple the size of the Saudi Arabian hoard thwart repeated attempts at its harvesting. Then an obscure scientist at a major oil company comes up with a better way. From solid black rock more than a thousand feet beneath desolate and parched mesas bubbles up crude so light and sweet refineries hardly need to touch it — hundreds of thousands, even millions of barrels per day. Enviros and statisticians skulk back to their yurts and cubicles; with ingenuity and pluck,Americacan indeed drill its way out of its oil problems.

It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Still, Royal Dutch Shell and others are selling their oil shale dreams, and the federal government is buying them. Shell’s Mahogany Research Project, into which the company has poured an estimated $200 million, gets its name from the “mahogany zone” shale of western Colorado, where each ton of rock could yield a barrel of oil or more — a million barrels per acre, geologists say. Small test plots have shown Shell’s “In Situ Process” of cooking oil shale where it lies really does work.

Shell in-situ oil-shale extraction schematic

A schematic of Shell's in-situ oil-shale extraction process, courtesy Rand Corporation.

In late November, the Bush Administration issued its midnight regulations related to oil shale. They established, among other things, an initial royalty rate of just 5 percent, amounting to a subsidy of billions of dollars. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, (D-Colo.) called it a “pittance.” Gulf of Mexico oil platforms pay royalties of 18.75 percent. Underground coal mines pays 8 percent. The new rules have oil shale royalty rates inching up after five years of production, until they match the 12.5 percent onshore oil and gas drillers pay. But the new rules don’t mention that Shell’s new process can extract its million barrels per acre within two years of opening the tap. The regulation also erases minimum lease sizes, such that oil companies could exploit entire leases, one after the other, without ever paying more than this “pittance.”

The Bureau of Land Management formulated its rules despite oil companies’ refusal to disclose production cost estimates or their proposed water or electricity needs, which would be gargantuan should oil shale make a dent ravenous U.S. consumption.

Republicans including Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch trumpet oil shale’s potential and want to start pumping ASAP; Democrats, take pause at the technical uncertainties and potential environmental damage and generally want to take things slow. Fortune and other business publications fawn over the Shell technology and the limitless potential of geologically half-baked oil reserves beneath the sagebrush deserts of Colorado,Wyoming and Utah. The Bureau of Land Management plans to open nearly 2 million acres of federal land, an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, to oil-shale leasing. BLM Director Jim Caswell says the 800 billion barrels of shale oil could “meetU.S. demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years.”

That would, of course, mean cooking enough kerogen to extract some 13 million barrels of oil per day — an impossible volume. The BLM’s recent environmental impact statement lays out its substantial environmental damage estimates based on a 200,000 barrel-per-day industry. A RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Department of Energy study views a 1 million to 3 million barrel-per-day out as possible major-league production numbers. For perspective, the Gulf of Mexico produce about 1.4 million barrels per day; Alaska yields about 700,000 barrels per day; and the entire United States pumps about 5 million barrels per day. If oil-shale development happens, oil companies will make a fortune as the hunting town of Meeker, now in “a dusty corner of northwestern Colorado,” as Fortune put it, morphs into a high-desert Houston.

There would be benefits. Domestic oil shale production would improve trade balances and slow the flow of dollars to hostile petro-states. It would raise tax revenues and create thousands of jobs. But the consequences could be staggering.

Shale production could suck arid western Colorado dry. It would bring land devastation well beyond that of the drill-pad-pocked landscapes scarred by the Wyoming natural gas boom. Powering the heaters of a million-barrel-per-day oil shale operation would mean doubling Colorado’s current electricity production. Even if oil companies eventually harness the natural gas derived from extraction, it would take a dozen behemoth fossil-fuel power plants generate the electricity. There would be transmission lines, pipelines, countless trucks and rigs and the utter devastation of the lands unfortunate enough to overlay the shale. All this to get at rock with the pound-for-pound energy content of potatoes. Randy Udall, a western Colorado energy expert and oil shale critic has quipped: “If someone told you there were a trillion tons of Tater Tots buried 1,000 feet deep, would you rush to dig them up?” (His brother Mark, a Democrat who this month won the open Colorado U.S. Senate seat, supports “a responsible process for oil-shale development.”)

Indeed, shale’s energy content per pound of raw material just two thirds that of wood, 40 percent that of coal, and 20 percent that of conventional crude oil. Its extraction would deliver only about three times the energy required to wrestle it from the ground — with estimates as low as 1.2 times as much. That’s comparable to corn-based ethanol, a fuel much maligned for its paltry energy return on investment. The RAND study concluded that even a massive operation would have little impact on energy security or global oil prices. What’s more, shale oil’s extraction and eventual consumption would pump perhaps half again as much carbon into the atmosphere as conventional oil.

Seventy percent of our richest oil-shale reserves are on federal land. Before the country agrees to oil shale, taxpayers should have the full story.

Imaging Earth, 2012 vs. 1972

NASA has released a phenomenal image:

Big Blue Marble 2012

Big Blue Marble, 2012 Edition. Click through and download the hi-res image to zoom in. It's worth your time.

Taken by the the Suomi NPP spacecraft on January 4. Ball Aerospace built the NPP spacecraft; the instrument, the snappily named Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), is Goddard’s work. Unbelievable.

If it looks vaguely familiar, that’s Earth. It’s kind of camera-shy, and when we’re focused on vital issues like the latest Romney-Gingrich throwdown in Florida, it doesn’t much have to worry about the paparazzi. But Apollo 17 astronauts famously caught it off guard nearly 40 years ago, on December 17, 1972.

Big Blue Marble, 1972

Big Blue Marble, 1972 edition

The above shot is credited with changing the way we look at Earth. The astronauts talked about how vulnerable our home appeared. They had a wide-angle view, and it was one blue marble and a helluva lot of killer black space.

One thing the newer image brings that the first didn’t is the wisp of atmosphere. It’s a halo, really.

Neither image deigns to recognize our physical presence. We seem invisible, all seven billion of us, our roads, bridges, buildings, bases, factories, mines, airports, warehouses, malls, everything. Many among us still can’t fathom that we can have a global impact. Looking at these shots, it’s not hard to understand why.

It’s befitting that our biggest global impact is invisible to us, too — gases, CO2 primarily, colorless, odorless, necessary for life on Earth, but also a risk to sea life (acidification) and sea-shore life (beachfront condos). That impact is very real, very measurable. If you don’t trust science, go see a faith healer next time you have strep throat.

But check out how thin that atmosphere is. A NOAA scientist — actually this guy (congratulations, Russ) — once described it to me as a sheet of paper on a standard basketball-size globe. Look how beautiful that planet is. Think about how we’re a part of it. How, far from being lords of it, our presence, from a few thousand miles away, can’t even be seen — only felt.

Peak Oil Happened Already, but also Not

Scientific American’s David Biello, a sharp observer of clean (and less-clean) energy, posted this piece on peak oil yesterday. The long and short of it is peak oil (the moment when we’ve collectively burned as much oil — about a trillion barrels — as is left in the ground) actually happened in 2005.

Peak oil is important because, the thinking goes, the specter of  future scarcity will drive up prices and generally gum up the oil-dependent world’s economic works.

The wrinkle is that the 2005 peak-oil depends on it being defined as (relatively) easy-to-extract oil, or maybe oil reserves as geologists would have recognized them in the 1970s. With unconventional reserves like Canadian tar sands, production has been able to keep pace with rising demand from places like China and India. The pace of consumption also will play a role in how peak oil plays out: the more utterly dependent, the worse the withdrawal, meaning an electrified, or semi-electrified, fleet will help matters. The article’s well worth a look.

Eric Schlosser at Colorado Conservation Voters

Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation” and other books, keynoted the Colorado Conservation Voters‘ annual luncheon today. The influential author was addressing an influential audience — Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Reps. Diana Degette and Ed Perlmutter, regional EPA director Jim Martin, and a slew of state house and senate members enjoyed pork chops locally raised free range chicken and speeches in the Grand Hyatt Denver’s Imperial Ballroom. I was part of a two-table Beth Conover posse. Not sure there was a Republican in the hall, which is a shame. The biosphere knows no politics.

[Addendum, courtesy Beth: For the record, I’m pretty sure there were several Republicans in the room- including a weld county commissioner/ tea partier who spent quite awhile talking with Eric after the talk, some rancher/ land conservation folks and at least a few oil & gas reps who visibly cringed at several points (!).]

Michael Pollan writes about our relationships with food; Schlosser is about food’s relationship with the planet. While he views climate change as “a nightmarish possibility,” the storyteller recognizes a better yarn when he sees one, and urged the environmentalists in the room to move away from this “very abstract” problem and think closer to home. “Food is not abstract,” he said. “We eat three meals a day.”

Indeed, agriculture is his doorway into environmentalism. He reminded the audience that half of Colorado’s land is covered with farms and ranches. Of the farms, 100,000 acres are organic, he said. Sounds like a lot. But it’s 0.33% of the Colorado total, he said.

Schlosser said he views organic farming as embodying “a humility towards nature.” Ranchers call it “holistic resource management.” The focus is the soil because what’s in the soil is in the crops is in the animals is in the people. We are soil long before we reunite with it. Lester Brown and others have gone into great detail about the dire state of this eroding, compacting lifeblood.

Without naming names, Schlosser blasted Monsanto and its Roundup-Ready genetically modified crops. The crops give soybeans, alfalfa, corn, canola and sugarbeets superplant abilities to survive onslaughts of Roundup weed killer (active ingredient glyphosate). Farmers use eight times more of the stuff than they 10 yeras ago, he said, and despite assurance that it biodegrades, it’s showing up in soils, watersheds, even raindrops, Schlosser said.

He urged the environmental advocates to get involved with food issues. As his listeners finished hundreds of chops from feedlot-raised pigs their meals, Schlosser reminded: “We don’t need to be pure to be effective.”

Five bucks well spent

The CU Center for Environmental Journalism forwarded a note with this link this morning, to a Wired.com article about how Al Gore and Push Up Press are aiming to “blow up the book.” As someone who recently wrote a book and then converted it into Kindle and ePub formats, this caught my attention. Push Up Press, founded by two former Apple guys, has created an app for books, as opposed using the Amazon Kindle or ePub formats, which are all HTML (standard web language) based. “Our Choice” is their inaugural product.

It’s amazing what they’ve done with “Our Choice,” Al Gore’s 2009 book. The print version is full of great images and artfully done, and a great place to start if you’re looking for a rundown on renewable energy technologies, biofuels, energy efficiency approaches, political and sociocultural considerations, population and environmental issues and other facts of the climate change mitigation/adaptation puzzle. This app, which I bought for my wife’s (well, mostly my wife’s) iPad and which, for the moment costs, $4.99, brings the graphics to life; lets you click on photos to understand exactly where Shishmaref, Alaska or Guazhou, China are; and has embedded videos as well as animations in which with Gore narrates how wind turbines, geothermal plants, solar concentrators and so on work. This iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version has also been editorially updated and has tons more pictures than the book (such as of wind turbines in Guazhou, China).

Whether the “Our Choice” app is a model for the future of e-publishing, I don’t know. The book’s topics are visual and topical, and they lend themselves to multimedia. Publishers will have to invest more in their books to make this standard. A novel about an Elizabethan-era romance won’t gain much by it. Reading fiction and narrative nonfiction is ultimately about visualizing scenes in the mind, the ultimate multimedia tool. It must have cost a fortune to create this thing.

It’s also not searchable, at least as far as I can tell, and while the scroll bar at bottom’s pretty useful, there’s no table of contents page that gives a quick overview.

But man, is it worth the five bucks.