Shell's Ingenious Approach To Oil Shale Is Pretty Slick

From: janice matchett <>
Date: Sat Sep 03 2005 - 20:45:40 EDT

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<>Shell's Ingenious
Approach To Oil Shale Is Pretty Slick
Mountain News ^ | Saturday, September 3, 2005 | Linda Seebach
Posted on 09/03/2005 4:58:07 PM EDT by Mount Athos

When oil prices last touched record highs - actually, after adjusting for
inflation we're not there yet, but given the effects of Hurricane Katrina,
we probably will be soon - politicians' response was more hype than hope.
Oil shale in Colorado! Tar sands in Alberta! OPEC be damned!

Remember the Carter-era Synfuels Corp. debacle? It was a response to the
'70s energy shortages, closed down in 1985 after accomplishing essentially
nothing at great expense, which is pretty much a description of what
usually happens when the government tries to take over something that the
private sector can do better. Private actors are, after all, spending their
own money.

Since 1981, Shell researchers at the company's division of "unconventional
resources" have been spending their own money trying to figure out how to
get usable energy out of oil shale. Judging by the presentation the Rocky
Mountain News heard this week, they think they've got it.

Shell's method, which it calls "in situ conversion," is simplicity itself
in concept but exquisitely ingenious in execution. Terry O'Connor, a vice
president for external and regulatory affairs at Shell Exploration and
Production, explained how it's done (and they have done it, in several test

Drill shafts into the oil-bearing rock. Drop heaters down the shaft. Cook
the rock until the hydrocarbons boil off, the lightest and most desirable
first. Collect them.

Please note, you don't have to go looking for oil fields when you're
brewing your own.

On one small test plot about 20 feet by 35 feet, on land Shell owns, they
started heating the rock in early 2004. "Product" - about one-third natural
gas, two-thirds light crude - began to appear in September 2004. They
turned the heaters off about a month ago, after harvesting about 1,500
barrels of oil.

While we were trying to do the math, O'Connor told us the answers. Upwards
of a million barrels an acre, a billion barrels a square mile. And the oil
shale formation in the Green River Basin, most of which is in Colorado,
covers more than a thousand square miles - the largest fossil fuel deposits
in the world.


They don't need subsidies; the process should be commercially feasible with
world oil prices at $30 a barrel. The energy balance is favorable; under a
conservative life-cycle analysis, it should yield 3.5 units of energy for
every 1 unit used in production. The process recovers about 10 times as
much oil as mining the rock and crushing and cooking it at the surface, and
it's a more desirable grade. Reclamation is easier because the only thing
that comes to the surface is the oil you want.

And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is
cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the
hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall
around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.

But ice is impermeable to water. So around the perimeter of the productive
site, you drill lots more shafts, only 8 to 12 feet apart, put in piping,
and pump refrigerants through it. The water in the ground around the shafts
freezes, and eventually forms a 20- to 30-foot ice barrier around the site.

Next you take the water out of the ground inside the ice wall, turn up the
heat, and then sit back and harvest the oil until it stops coming in useful
quantities. When production drops, it falls off rather quickly.

That's an advantage over ordinary wells, which very gradually get less
productive as they age.

Then you pump the water back in. (Well, not necessarily the same water,
which has moved on to other uses.) It's hot down there so the water flashes
into steam, picking up loose chemicals in the process. Collect the steam,
strip the gunk out of it, repeat until the water comes out clean. Then you
can turn off the heaters and the chillers and move on to the next plot
(even saving one or two of the sides of the ice wall, if you want to be
thrifty about it).

Most of the best territory for this astonishing process is on land under
the control of the Bureau of Land Management. Shell has applied for a
research and development lease on 160 acres of BLM land, which could be
approved by February. That project would be on a large enough scale so
design of a commercial facility could begin.

The 2005 energy bill altered some provisions of the 1920 Minerals Leasing
Act that were a deterrent to large-scale development, and also laid out a
30-month timetable for establishing federal regulations governing
commercial leasing.

Shell has been deliberately low-key about their R&D, wanting to avoid the
hype, and the disappointment, that surrounded the last oil-shale boom. But
O'Connor said the results have been sufficiently encouraging they are
gradually getting more open. Starting next week, they will be holding
public hearings in northwest Colorado.

I'll say it again. Wow.

      * do they prevent an enormous loss of liquid via
seepage? <>46

 From my understanding, isn't that what the ice walls are designed to
accomplish? I understand that that would create a walled structure leaving
the bottom open. I assume though that the shale and rock would maybe act as
a liner on the bottom? I'm sure the engineers thinking of this already
figured that
out. <>51

Perhaps that's it. If SOME layer of shale will or can be forced to act as
the ''bottom'' of the ''cauldron'', then the deal is sealed.

I think you're probably spot on or very close. I should have thought it
through a bit more,
evidently. <>76

Study reveals huge U.S. oil-shale field
Times By Jennifer Talhelm, AP
Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON The United States has an oil reserve at least three times that
of Saudi Arabia locked in oil-shale deposits beneath federal land in
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, according to a study released yesterday.

But the researchers at the RAND think tank caution the federal government
to go carefully, balancing the environmental and economic impacts with
development pressure to prevent an oil-shale bust later.

"We've got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East,"
said James Bartis, RAND senior policy researcher and the report's lead
author. ...

For years, the industry and the government considered oil shale a rock
that produces petroleum when heated too expensive to be a feasible source
of oil. However, oil prices, which spiked above $70 a barrel this week,
combined with advances in technology could soon make it possible to tap the
estimated 500 billion to 1.1 trillion recoverable barrels, the report found.

The study, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, comes about
a month after the president signed a new energy policy dramatically
reversing the nation's approach to oil shale and opening the door within a
few years to companies that want to tap deposits on public lands.

The report also says oil-shale mining, above-ground processing and
disposing of spent shale cause significant adverse environmental impacts.
Shell Oil is working on a process that would heat the oil shale in place,
which could have less effect on the


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~ Janice
Received on Sat Sep 3 20:49:54 2005

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