Re: Shell's Ingenious Approach To Oil Shale Is Pretty Slick

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Tue Sep 06 2005 - 07:30:14 EDT

Extremely complex methods of recovery such as the one outlined hardly ever work as planned. Chevron came up with a similarly complex method for extracting oil in situ from Canada's oil sands. Turned out to be a total bust on the first large-scale test. Every experienced industry earth scientist knows that subsurface formations are far more complex than the simple models would lead the uninitiated to expect. That part about creating a barrier by freezing looks particularly flaky. In practice (I'm guessing) that would require wells like, maybe, two feet apart, with a high-powered refrigerator attached to each. (Of course, if you could put in horizontal piping for the refrigerants, the wells could be farther apart; but how would you install such piping at anything like a reasonable cost?) And even then, because of irregularities in the subsurface, the resulting system would probably be very leaky. I'd further guess, however, that the oil shales have very low permeability, so such an ice barrier may not even be important. (And wouldn't the ground water in those shales already be contaminated with hydrocarbons?!) But low permeability itself would be a further barrier to extracting oil without digging up the rock. The rock might have to be fractured in place before you start heating--causing significant additional expense.

On balance, this looks like another example of management screw-up. If a vice president--especially one for "external and regulatory affairs" as opposed to technology--is giving you the details rather than researchers themselves, it's likely that the story has been hyped multiple times. The industry requires hype to function, or no wells would ever be drilled; but it's best to catch it when it hatches rather than after it multiplies.

And then let's talk about production rates: Punch a hole in a Saudi oil field and (it used to be, at least) you'd get thousands of barrels per day of high-quality oil flowing out of the ground like water out of an artesian well. Compare that with production from any conceivable method for oil sands or oil shale and you begin to see what the real long-term problem is.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Al Koop<>
  Sent: Sunday, September 04, 2005 10:00 AM
  Subject: Re: Shell's Ingenious Approach To Oil Shale Is Pretty Slick

  There is a great deal of hyperbole in this article. Take this statement:

  "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."

  That is almost certainly wrong. It says Shell engineers are able to recover ten times more oil from rock thousands of feet below the surface than they can when it is sitting right in front of them AND IT IS OF A HIGHER GRADE. That just cannot be true. The last sentence is basically correct. It takes a lot of energy to haul rocks up from deep formations, of which just a tiny fraction is oil, so everybody knows that releasing the kerogen in situ and just bringing it to the surface makes a lot of sense. Maybe the reporter meant something else, but as it stands it doesn't make much sense.

  Already in the 70's they tried exploding a nuclear device underground in the shale to release the desired products, but at that time they concluded it would not work. The idea of producing petroleum in situ certainly is not anything new or ingenious.

  Whether somebody eventually finds a way to get energy out of shale with enough net positive energy remains to be seen. There are all sorts of possible alternative energy sources, but I think the jury is still out on whether any of them will ever be available in sufficient quantities and with sufficient net energy to replace petroleum. That is why world leaders should put some funds toward research trying out different approaches.

  In addition, how can any knowledgeable person talk about getting so much oil from an area rather than a volume. The shale has some thickness and I doubt if it is uniform over a thousand square miles. It also depends how deep it is. It makes little sense to say you can get a million barrels an acre.

  I sure would want to talk to some Shell geologist to get the story rather than try to figure out what they have done from this muddled mess. (I especially like the Wow's in the article--very professional.)


>>> janice matchett <<>> 09/03/05 8:45 PM >>>
  Comments follow (refresh your browser if you click link):

  <>Shell's<>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<>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<>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<>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


  For those interested, my posts are here:<>

  And here:<>
  ~ Janice
Received on Tue Sep 6 07:28:58 2005

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