As Gov. Gary Herbert prepares today to stage the first of four statewide forums on Utah's energy future, a Rocky Mountain environmental group has some advice: Forget oil shale and tar sands.
Western Resource Advocates issued a 38-page report Tuesday on the energy and water inefficiency of either potential fuel source. The title: Fossil Foolishness: Utah's Pursuit of Tar Sands and Oil Shale.
The Boulder, Colo.-based legal and policy group commissioned a Boston University geographer to analyze the energy return on investment for oil shale. He determined that most research indicates that, at best, making fuel from the rock would generate twice the energy content of what it takes to produce. That compares to a 20-to-1 ratio or better for petroleum.
Additionally, the advocates insist, these potential fuel sources are too polluting and water intensive to win a place in Herbert's vision for a clean-energy economy. They argue they also would require too many public subsidies to meet his test for market solutions.
"This just looks like a return to yesteryear," Western Resource Advocates President Karin Sheldon said Tuesday of possible development in eastern Utah.
Herbert's first energy forum to be moderated by environmental adviser Ted Wilson is scheduled for today in Price.
Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said the governor's energy task force will weigh comments from all interested Utahns before determining which elements to include in the plan.
"Governor Herbert is committed to an open dialogue and examination of all of Utah's energy resources to determine the best way to meet the state's future energy demands," she said.
Herbert's announcement earlier this summer of a process to establish an energy plan mentioned oil shale as one of eastern Utah's potential energy sources.
The Western Resource Advocates report cites state and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that Utah will exhaust its remaining share of Colorado River water by about 2020 even without giving over any of it to new energy development.
Utah's potential for developing 634,000 barrels of oil a day by mining and then cooking oil shale would require somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 acre-feet of water, Sheldon said. An acre-foot, roughly 326,000 gallons, is about enough to supply two households for a year.
While not armed with as much research about Utah's tar sands, the environmental group believes that potential energy source faces similar efficiency issues.
Backers of oil shale's potential for creating jobs and weaning the nation from foreign oil accept that its development is not economical without further technological advances. But they say the state and nation should encourage those advances.
"America needs oil, and we're going to need oil for the foreseeable future," said Curtis Moore, executive director of the Grand Junction, Colo.-based Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale, a nonprofit group on industry's side of the issue.
Developing oil shale, he said, could create a lot of jobs in Utah and Colorado while helping to feed a national oil appetite that the Department of Energy expects to grow 17 percent by 2035.
Curtis acknowledged that current technology hasn't made oil shale worth developing, but said advancements make it look likely in the future. For instance, he said, industry now believes it can generate a barrel of oil from shale for every 1.7 barrels of water used in the process. That's an exponentially lower amount of water than in previous estimates, though still, according to environmentalists, more than this arid region can spare.
Bill Johnson, a Vernal resident and Utah appointee to the Congressional Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels, said environmentalists use water scarcity to obstruct debate on the fuels' merits.
"Look at how much water it takes to make ethanol," Johnson said, pointing out that most of America's ethanol is produced in the Midwest, where there is more water. "These environmental extremists don't seem to be complaining about that."
Oil shale mined in Utah could be shipped to the Midwest for processing, said Johnson, formerly Uintah County's economic development director.
Sheldon counters that such an arrangement would further increase the energy required to turn shale into oil, while splitting pollution problems between more states.
O View the report online. > tinyurl.com/37nl3rq
Turning shale into fuel
When crushed and roasted in a kiln, oil shale yields a waxy hydrocarbon called kerogen, a substance that hasn't undergone the geologic heat and pressure necessary to create petroleum. It can be refined into diesel, naphtha and sulfur, but no U.S. refineries accept kerogen.