Op-ed: Oil shale is the fool's gold of energy
Last month, Red Leaf Resources Inc. received final permits to build and operate the first commercial-sized oil shale processing system in Utah.
Although small in scale, if successful, the impacts to our air, water and wilderness will be felt from eastern Utah's gas fields to Salt Lake City's air shed.
First of all, there is no "oil" in oil shale. It's the fool's gold of fossil fuels. Any consideration of this marlstone by the industry baking it and journalists covering it should call it what it is: kerogen shale, or better, "fool's oil."
Kerogen is a mixture of hydrocarbons, which can turn into oil, but requires a great deal of time, pressure and heating, something the planet performs over the course of millions of years. Mother Nature's own "slow cooking" movement.
Red Leaf plans to accelerate this process using their patented EcoShale In-Capsule technology. For this project they plan to construct a clay-lined six-acre pit, fill it with excavated shale to a height of 100 feet, cover all that with another three feet of clay and heat the interior using natural gas to 725 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 90 consecutive days.
Once the baking is complete, the earthen oven and the spent shale will remain in place. Only then can the environmental impacts of heating six acres of earth to 725 degrees for up to three months be assessed.
The success of this project will center around how efficient burning one fossil fuel (methane) to produce another (oil) truly is. Energy analysts refer to this as EROI, or Energy Returned on Investment.
Most conventional crude oil has an average EROI of 15, meaning every unit of energy invested gets you 15 units of energy in return.
According to Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy group, the EROI for kerogen shale is somewhere between 1.0 and 1.5. Basically, for every barrel of oil burned, you'll get a little more than a barrel of oil produced.
That's a poor EROI, but Red Leaf will accept that number as long as they can make a profit. And with the price of oil relatively high compared to the current price of natural gas, the numbers look promising.
And this is where the problem lies. If Red Leaf makes a profit, more clay ovens will be built, more natural gas wells will be drilled to provide the methane necessary to heat them, thousands of additional tanker trucks will rumble down I-80 into Salt Lake City, and the refineries will belch out even more emissions into the valley's already lousy air.
Supporters like to call oil shale the "energy of tomorrow." It's not oil and it's not worth the energy today or tomorrow.
Christopher Cherniak, P.E., is an environmental engineer and president of Cherniak Environmental, Inc.