EarthTalk is a Q&A column from E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: Are the United States' vast oil shale resources a potential source of energy? -- Larry LeDoux, Honolulu, HI
Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains significant amounts of kerogen, a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds that can be converted into synthetic liquid fuel similar to oil, or into shale gas similar to petroleum-derived natural gas. Geologists believe there is more oil shale out there in the rocks of the world -- three trillion barrels worth of fuel -- than there is oil in existing reserves globally.
Oil shale has been mined extensively in Brazil, China, Estonia, Germany, Israel and Russia, but up to two-thirds of the world's supply lies in the Green River basin of the western United States, including parts of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. To date, these American oil shale resources remain virtually untapped, but an 11th hour executive order by the Bush administration in 2008 put two million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado up for lease to oil shale extractors.
Other nations with oil shale reserves have been mining them for decades for power generation and other uses, but American enthusiasm has run hot and cold, depending on oil prices. The U.S. was bullish on oil shale during the 1970's oil shocks, but when gas prices fell again, so did the enthusiasm for oil shale.
American companies didn't look into mining domestic oil shale again until 2003, again, thanks to spiking oil prices. George W. Bush's Energy Policy Act of 2005 officially opened federal lands to oil shale extraction. But then once again lowered oil prices, along with environmental concerns and growing enthusiasm for renewable energy sources left oil shale's future in the U.S. again uncertain.
For their part, environmental groups are unequivocally against oil shale extraction. For one, extracting operations destroy affected landscapes, forcing plants and animals out, with regeneration unlikely for decades. Another big issue with oil shale extraction is water usage. The process requires as much as five barrels of water -- for dust control, cooling and other purposes -- for every barrel of shale oil produced.
Oil shale extraction is also very energy-intensive, and as such is no solution to our global warming woes. Researchers have found that a gallon of shale oil can emit as much as 50% more carbon dioxide than a gallon of conventional oil would over its given lifecycle from extraction to tailpipe.
Due to these concerns and others, 13 environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, teamed up in January 2009 to file suit against the federal government for opening up all that western U.S. land to oil shale development. The suit contends that the BLM failed to properly consider air quality and endangered species impacts in the region. The groups also contend that the development would require the construction of 10 new coal-fired power plants in order to get at and process the oil shale, significantly upping the carbon footprint of the entire region.
Green groups hope that the Obama administration will overturn Bush's decision to lease development rights on the land, which is near three national parks in one of the least developed parts of the U.S.
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