As the old saying goes, a conservative is a liberal whos been mugged. A twist on that aphorism might be that a conservative is a liberal who paid $80 to fill up the Volvo.
Polls show that more Americans, even liberal Democrats, support expanded domestic oil production. What if the poll respondents learned that a vast pool of oil sits untapped? Its three times the size of Saudi Arabias reserves and is emphatically within U.S. borders.
What are we waiting for? the poll respondents might exclaim.
Except that theres a catch. Before the oil can be used, we have to wait 100 million years.
In an age when immediate gratification is considered a virtue, that simply wont do. Shell is bringing technology to the rescue, to speed things up and tap the estimated 800 billion barrels of shale oil lying beneath the scrubby uplands of the central Rockies.
Shale oil is preemie oil. Strictly speaking, its a calcium carbonate rock containing a goopy hydrocarbon called kerogen. If we wait 100 million years, natural subterranean heat may turn the kerogen into crude oil. Since we cant wait that long, Shell is experimenting with an audacious technology to heat the stuff artificially, and then bring it to the surface to quench our unquenchable oil thirst. More on Shells idea in a moment.
Instead of carrying begging bowls to Riyadh, why havent we tapped shale before? To answer that question, its important to know why crude oil is so valuable. Oil is energy-dense, meaning that pound for pound, it packs a huge energy punch.
Not so with shale oil. Its low quality stuff that is hard and expensive to produce. If crude oil is the single-malt Scotch whiskey of energy, then shale oil is the watery convenience store beer.
In shale-land, the mother lode is a ton of rock that holds a mere 30 gallons of oil. Refine it and youll get 15 gallons of gasoline, barely enough to move one Honda Civic from Boston to Buffalo.
Weve dabbled with shale before. Back in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter made energy speeches wearing a sweater and a frown, the federal government tried to jump-start a shale industry in Colorado. The idea was to dig up the rock and heat it in surface ovens called retorts. Extracting the oil in this manner would have consumed vast quantities of water in an arid region and left huge tailings piles for the locals to worry about.
When the price of oil dropped, thanks partly to improved fuel efficiency, the shale boom went bust, which left a bad taste in Coloradoans mouths that has persisted to this day.
Shell has a better idea. Rather than haul the shale rocks up and heat them at the surface, leave them in place and heat them underground. No eyesore tailings piles, no ugly surface retorts.
But theres a catch. To make this method work, Shell would have to use electricity on a heroic scale. The recipe goes like this: Block moisture from entering the production zone by building an underground ice wall with circulating refrigerants the worlds largest chest freezer. Insert electric heating rods into holes dug into the ground the worlds largest wall heater. Bake for a few years.
To produce 1 million barrels of shale oil per day about 5 percent of current national demand 12,000 megawatts of generating capacity would be required. Coal is a likely fuel to produce all that power.
Never mind all the CO2 that the coal plants would produce. Think about all the water they would consume. Running at 80 percent capacity and consuming half a gallon per kilowatt-hour generated, the coal plants would run through 129,000 acre-feet of water every year enough to serve the indoor needs of nearly 1.8 million people.
Shell wont know for several years whether its technique will work or whether it will pay. Even if it does, its not a magic wand.
Thats because there are none to be found. Weve spent the better part of half a century digging ourselves into an energy hole, and it will take hard work and smart choices to climb out.
I cant answer for liberals who think theyve cornered the market on environmental virtue, but changed their minds about oil drilling when gas hit $4 a gallon. But I can take conservatives to task for similar sins: a lack of prudence in planning our energy future, a refusal to face up to the risks of oil dependence, and utopian demands for fossil fuel panaceas.
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