Shale oil

Articles about shale oil

This is the best overview of shale “oil“:  Oct 3, 2005. Randy Udall. The Illusive Bonanza: Oil Shale in Colorado “Pulling the Sword from the Stone”.

Cleveland, Cutler, J., et al. June 2010. An Assessment of the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of Oil Shale. Boston University.

Shell is pulling out of Colorado after 31 years of trying to get the shale out

29 Sep 2013. Kurt Cobb. Geology beats technology: Shell shuts down shale pilot project:

“The belief that technology can always overcome natural limits just took a big hit this week when Royal Dutch Shell PLC decided to shut down its pilot oil shale project in western Colorado after 31 years of experimentation. A clue [as to why they shut the project down] comes from coverage in The Denver Post: “Full-scale production would probably have required building a dedicated power plant.” In simple terms, it takes energy to get energy. Shell’s process requires copious amounts of electricity to heat the rock in place through boreholes in order to release the waxy hydrocarbons embedded in it. In this pilot project, the subterranean rock was heated for three years before liquids were captured and brought to the surface for further processing.


Shale oil issues: why it will never be an energy resource

Oil shale is any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated.

1) Restoring the land after mining the shale will be very energy expensive. When oil shale is retorted, the inorganic portion of the shale expands considerably. The spent shale remaining after retorting has no commercial value, but it must be disposed of in an environmentally acceptable manner. Ideally, the spent shale is placed back in the mine, refilling the mined-out cavity and helping to prepare the area for land reclamation. Because of the popcorn effect, the volume of spent shale is greater than the volume of the mine from which it was taken. Thus even if the mine were completely refilled, there would still exist some amount of spent shale for which alternative disposal methods must be sought

2) Shale oil needs to be mined, pulverized, and heated to get the oil out. It’s done with machines that burn oil to dig, drill, blast, crush, load, haul, dump, heat, hydrogenate, refine, and transport the ore and final product.

3) The hydrogenation step requires a tremendous amount of water to provide hydrogen to refine the shale. Separating the hydrogen from the water uses a large amount of energy. An estimated one to four barrels of water are required for each barrel of oil. Where this water would come from is a mystery, the Colorado river is already insufficient for downstream users.

4) Randy Udall and Steve Andrews: “Compared to the coal that launched the Industrial Revolution or the oil that sustains Western Civilization, oil shale is a pathetic pretender…When it comes to energy, quality is everything. Quality can be measured in various ways—cost, convenience, and cleanliness all matter-—but energy density trumps them all…Pound for pound, oil shale contains one-tenth the energy of crude oil, one-sixth that of coal, and one-fourth that of recycled phone books…Dung cakes have four times more energy than oil shale…Searching for appropriate low-calorie analogies, we turn to food…Oil shale is said to be “rich” when it contains 30 gallons of petroleum per ton. An equal weight of granola contains three times more energy. The “vast,” “immense,” and “unrivaled” deposits of shale buried in Utah and Colorado have the energy density of a baked potato. If someone told you there were a trillion tons of tater tots buried 1,000 feet-deep, would you rush to dig them up? Oil shale has one-third the energy density of Cap’n Crunch, but no one is drilling in the cereal aisle”.

5) Steve Mut, CEO of Shell’s Unconventional Resources unit, spoke at the Denver ASPO 2005 conference about Shell’s project to use shale oil. He pointed out that people have been trying to do this for over 100 years, so there was no guarantee they’d succeed. Shell has been working on a small-scale project for over two decades. If they decide to scale it up to a level of producing significant amounts of shale oil, it would require eight to ten gigawatts of power a day, as much as a large city uses.

6) The Energy Returned on Energy Invested is at best 2 to 1 according to a study by Cleveland Cutler.  Charles A. S. Hall estimates you need an EROEI of 12 to 1 to keep Civilization-As-We-Know-It running, right now we’re at about 20 to 1 and when the oil age started, we started out at 100 to 1.


Shale In the News

30 September 2013. Steve Andrews. Shell’s Shale Oil Shutdown  1-800-dry-hole. ASPO.

Early last week, Shell Oil announced it was shutting down its oil shale research project in western Colorado. Combine their departure with Chevron’s exit back in February 2012 and you can count another nail in oil shale’s coffin.

Yet since this unconventional resource ranks among the largest in the world, estimated by some at 1+ trillion barrels of potential liquid energy, this might well not be the final chapter in efforts to develop it. But it probably should be.

Shale oil may be the fool’s gold of the energy world. As long-time friend, energy writer and commentator Randy Udall wrote back in 2005, “If crude oil is king, oil shale is a pauper. It’s the dregs. The mystery is not that we lack an oil shale industry; it’s that we’ve spent billions trying to develop one.” His most pointed question: are such development efforts acts of inspiration or desperation?

A badly-kept secret is that there is no oil in oil shale. The rock is actually called marlstone and the hydrocarbon it contains is a waxy substance that never went through the “oil window”—the heat and pressure applied over millions of years to turn the solid into liquid energy. Instead, developers such as Shell cooked the kerogen into petroleum by injecting heat energy. A lot of heat energy. Gigabunches of heat energy. In fact, so much was needed—one very large new power plant per 100,000 barrels/day of liquid produced—that the process, despite extensive R&D, never made economic sense.

Shell was guarded with the details of their energy balance analysis, also known as Energy Return on Energy Invested. But it seemed likely that for every unit of energy input to produce liquid from kerogen, the output was just two units, maybe 2.5 units best case. (For comparison, conventional oil in the USA is likely to result in roughly 10 units of energy output for every one unit input.) Further, while Shell claimed they owned enough water rights to supply the substantial amounts required during production, residents of arid western Colorado expected large impacts on their water supply.

The high energy and water requirements undoubtedly contributed to Shell’s exit, though the company tended to speak in terms of “evolving priorities” and “other opportunities. In Shell’s comments to journalists, they didn’t exactly say, “it’s over. Kaput. Finito.” After all, that would be fessing up to the fact that their “tens of millions of dollars” invested in oil shale R&D as of mid-2005 came up way short—a high-stakes gamble with some learning spinoffs, but mostly money down a rathole.

If misery loves company, Shell has plenty of it. During the 1915-1920 era, oil shale promoters endured the first of many investment boom and bust cycles. Half a century later, the most infamous of these crashes hit western Colorado hard; it was the flaming out of our $8 billion federal investment in oil shale started during the late 1970s. When Exxon Mobil Corp. pulled the plug on its $5 billion project on May 2, 1982 (called “Bloody Sunday”), it cut 2,200 jobs and sent west-central Colorado into a decade-long depression. Today, Shell’s decision only impacts perhaps a few dozen Coloradans. But it deals a body blow to the latest round of oil shale hype.

As recently as 2005, one California Congressman—who must have been either blind, dumb or devious—intoned that if we would just get with the oil shale program, as a US Dept. of Energy report claimed, the USA could be producing 10 million barrels a day of the stuff in a couple of decades. Given that our oil production of the $3/barrel variety actually peaked at close to 10 million b/d some 40+ years ago, the notion that we could ever produce that much from very expensive shale oil was delusional.

Randy ranked in the top tier of oil shale skeptics. Our tour together of Shell’s Mahogany Creek research site in August 2005 kick-started his concerns. Over the next eight years, he penned a number of brutally frank op-eds, wrote “The Illusive Bonanza: Pulling the Sword from the Stone,” and started speaking out about the challenges and downsides of oil shale. He rarely pulled his punches.

During our visit to Shell’s R&D site, company personnel showed us the small area, a footprint about the size of a two-car garage, from which they had produced 2000 barrels of high-quality petroleum liquids. That was the culmination of 25 years of R&D efforts. They opined that after another five years of R&D, by 2010 they should be able to make a go/no-go decision about commercialization. But in 2010, Shell admitted they needed more time. Now we have their answer: we’re outta here.

Before Randy died this past June, it may be that his last publication was his article questioning a recent twist in the oil shale story: the entrance by Estonia’s government-owned oil company Enefit into the US oil shale saga. Estonia apparently agreed to subsidize Enefit’s efforts to export its oil shale technology to the US and elsewhere. An Estonian mining engineer wondered why Estonian taxpayers were subsidizing half a billion kroons for such development. Randy went on as follows:

“But what is a ‘kroon,’ you might ask. Kroons were once the local currency in Estonia. Then, when the country adopted the Euro, the old banknotes were compressed into bricks and burned for heating fuel. Smarter to burn those, in my view, than to burn oil shale.” Yet the sheer size of this illusive prize and the high price of petroleum products make it likely that some level of R&D will continue, with or without oil majors like Shell and Chevron. So, as Yogi Berra might put it, it ain’t over til it’s over…though it probably should be.

Steve Andrews is a retired energy consultant and analyst.


Dec 3, 2003. Brian Robins.   Shale-oil dream ends in company collapse

The collapse yesterday of Southern Pacific Petroleum marked the end of one of the most enduring and ambitious dreams of the local resources industry: shale oil.

In 1968, US business magazine Forbes heralded shale oil, essentially a process to extract oil from shale rock, as “a veritable treasure of black gold . . . so plentiful it can supply this country’s needs for at least 200 years.” The US never had a shale oil project.

When it collapsed, Southern Pacific was at work on the Stuart project near Gladstone, one of a clutch of shale oil prospects it held west of the Queensland regional centre.

While there have been other resource dreams that came to nought – such as Australian Magnesium Corp – shale oil differed. It died a lingering death that began not long after the concept emerged at the start of the 1980s, when US oil giant Exxon said it would outlay a then unheard of $400 million to buy half the Rundle oil shale prospect from Southern Pacific and its Central Pacific Minerals stablemate. Southern Pacific and Central Pacific, for much of their life known as the Rundle twins, merged in 2002.

Doubts about the technical feasibility of extracting shale oil and environmental problems arose soon after Rundle hit the news, and were never resolved. It was a complex and inefficient process. In fact, shale oil is not actually oil at all, but kerogen, with the shale heated and the resulting vapour becoming liquid oil when cooled.

The numbers just never added up: shale oil was supposed to be economic with the price of oil at more than $US13 a barrel, while Southern Pacific had reserves in excess of 26 billion barrels of oil, not far off Libya’s 29.5 billion barrels. The technical issues never were resolved and sceptical investors kept well clear of the shares.

The trigger for the interest in shale oil was the surge in oil prices in the 1970s as OPEC squeezed supplies, triggering a hunt for alternative fuels.


Nov 30, 2003. Steve Raabe. Geology sealed Colorado’s fate in oil crash. Denver Post.

In the game of synthetic petroleum, Mother Nature has dealt a full house to Alberta, Canada, and a pair of deuces to Colorado.

Colorado’s synfuels bluff was called in 1982 when a budding oil-shale boom suddenly went bust, sending the Western Slope economy into a depression that took years to mend.

Meanwhile, northern Alberta now is pumping a steady flow of synthetic crude to the United States from a huge oil-sands deposit worth as much as $9 trillion.

“The forecast for oil sands is significant. They’re in business,” said Craig Van Kirk, head of the petroleum engineering department at Colorado School of Mines.

“On the other hand, oil shale is not in business,” he said. “Never has been, perhaps never will be.”

The difference is water. Because they contain a trace of water, doughy oil sands are easier to turn into crude than is rocky shale, which had its moisture squeezed out during eons of pressure and heat.

In a geologic quirk of fate, Canada’s oil sands evolved from ancient seabeds that retained some of their moisture.

The gooey black substance that makes up oil sands consists of individual particles of sand and clay, each surrounded by a thin film of water, then coated with a layer of heavy petroleum.

The processing of oil sands is a relatively simple technique using steam or hot water to melt oil away from sand, a separation made easy by the underlying film of water.

No such benefit exists in oil shale, where lake bottoms lost moisture through pressure and heat, creating a shalelike rock called marl.

Oil-bearing hydrocarbons in shale, known as kerogen, are bonded tightly within the rock. That requires the difficult, expensive process of cooking oil out of the shale.

Coloradans learned of oil shale’s economic and technical problems on May 2, 1982, a day still remembered as “Black Sunday,” when Exxon suddenly pulled the plug on its multibillion-dollar Colony oil shale project near Parachute.

The overnight closure left more than 2,000 workers unemployed and created a wave of bankruptcies, foreclosures and business failures on the Western Slope.

Government subsidies and soaring prices in the late 1970s and early 1980s raised hopes that oil shale could address the United States’ dependence on imported oil.

Oil-shale resources in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin contain as much as 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil, equaling about one-half of all crude oil reserves in the Mideast.

But Exxon, Union Oil of California (Unocal), Shell Oil and a handful of smaller players never have produced a profitable barrel of synthetic crude from shale.

Energy experts say oil prices, after reaching all-time highs of nearly $40 a barrel in 1981, have fallen to levels that don’t justify the huge investments necessary to build commercial oil-shale operations.

And even if prices soared again, technical and environmental impediments make shale an iffy prospect.

“It’s not so much price as it is a technological barrier,” said ExxonMobil spokesman Chris Dobbs.

The process of cooking oil out of shale requires large amounts of natural gas or electricity. Disposal of spent shale is difficult, and virtually every stage of recovery and processing consumes lots of water.

The hurdles haven’t stopped Shell from returning to Rio Blanco County with an experimental technique that may one day prove economically feasible.

Instead of the conventional technique of mining shale and baking it in industrial-sized ovens to recover oil, Shell is drilling holes into shale formations and suspending electric heaters in the well bores.

Oil melted from the electric heat is then pumped to the surface.

The “in-situ” underground process creates less surface disturbance and eliminates the problem of spent shale disposal.

“It’s promising because we think it’s environmentally more viable than in the past,” said Shell spokeswoman Jill Davis.

“But this is still in a research phase,” she said. “It’s important not to tout this because of what has happened in the past with the booms and busts.”


Jul 12, 2004. Paul B. Weisz.Basic Choices and Constraints on Long-term Energy Supplies. Physics Today.

Oil shale, or bitumen, is sedimentary rock containing dilute amounts of “heavy oil” or near-solid carbonaceous residues. The US has negligible amounts of that resource. Worldwide estimates of the total energy contents are large but highly speculative.

To harvest the dilute solid carbonaceous contents requires drastic measures: Either underground combustion, heating, steam, or air to drive the carbonaceous solids toward the surface, or the mining of huge volumes of solids using heat, solvents, and steam to extract the resource. The extracts must be further processed to yield usable hydrocarbon fuels, a process that requires further energy sacrifices. Compared to petroleum, these heavy oils present additional refining and environmental problems because of the abundance of nitrogen, oxygen, and metal compounds found in them. Also, the amount of CO2 released during processing and use greatly exceeds that released by the current use of petroleum fuels.

Weisz is an emeritus professor of chemical and bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a retired senior scientist and manager at the Central Research Laboratory of the Mobil Corp. He is also currently an adjunct professor of chemical engineering at the Pennsylvania State University.


67658 Hayduke  Dec 21, 2004 In the late 70s and early 80s I had a contract with the
Department of Energy (DOE) to document their oil shale and tar sands projects in
Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. I trooped about all over the country, most often in the Rifle, Colorado area, shooting video and stills, interviewing content experts and preparing detailed technical reports and video documentaries for the folks back in Washington, DC.

I learned a few interesting things:
1) Oil shale doesn’t contain oil; it contains kerogen. Kerogen requires considerable
processing once it’s released from the shale before it can be used as a fuel. Yes, it
will burn if you keep an intense flame on it long enough.
2) When oil shale is retorted to release the contained kerogen, it expands 2 to 3 times
it’s in-situ volume.
3) So-called “in-situ” retorting requires considerable hard rock mining in order to
prepare the rubbleized oil shale for retorting. Somewhere around 10% 0f the kerogen can
be pumped out in in-situ processing.

After several years of effort, it was pretty well determined, by the scientists in the
field, that developing oil shale is an energy sink


18 Dec 2005.  Randy Udall and Steve Andrews. Oil shale may be fool’s gold. Denver Post.

Buried underground in western Colorado are a trillion tons of oil shale. For a century, men have tried and tried again to unlock this energy source. But the rocks have proved stubborn, promising much, delivering little.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy published a new report on oil shale. It claimed that the nation could wring “200,000 barrels a day from oil shale by 2011, 2 million barrels a day by 2020, and ultimately 10 million barrels a day” from fields in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. These predictions – both the production targets and their timing – are preposterous, as some industry experts admit.

But hyping oil shale is nothing new. As geologist Walter Youngquist once wrote, “Bankers won’t invest a dime in ‘organic marlstone,’ the shale’s proper name, but ‘oil shale’ is another matter.”

California Rep. Richard Pombo and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch are spearheading efforts to jumpstart the industry. “I find it disturbing that Utah imports oil from Canadian tar sands, even though our oil shale resource remains undeveloped,” says Hatch.

In truth, oil shale presents a paradox. If these rocks are, as some claim, the richest fossil fuel resource on Earth, why has it been so difficult to unlock them?

The primary explanation is that oil shale is a lousy fuel. Compared to the coal that launched the Industrial Revolution or the oil that sustains the world today, oil shale is the dregs. Coal seams a few feet thick are worth mining because coal contains lots of energy. If coal is good, oil is even better. And oil shale? Per pound, it contains one-tenth the energy of crude oil, one-sixth that of coal.

Searching for appropriate analogies, we enter the realm of Weight Watchers. Oil shale is said to be “rich” when a ton yields 30 gallons of oil. An equal weight of granola contains three times more energy. America’s “vast,” “immense” deposits of shale have the energy density of a baked potato. Oil shale has one-third the energy density of Cap’n Crunch, but no one is counting on the Quaker Oats Company to become a major energy producer soon.

Historically, oil shale has been mined, crushed and roasted in large kilns, or “retorts.” The slag, swollen in volume and contaminated with arsenic, must then be disposed. The process is so costly, laborious and polluting that global output has never exceeded 25,000 barrels a day, compared to 84 million barrels of conventional oil production.

In the last 150 years, humans have used 1 trillion barrels of conventional oil. The second trillion will be consumed in the next 30 years. Given projected demand for fuel, Royal/ Dutch Shell has been experimenting with a new way to produce shale oil, a way that is, at first glance, more promising.

Humor columnist Dave Barry once demonstrated that if you put a “strawberry Pop-Tart in a toaster for five minutes and 50 seconds, it will turn into a snack-pastry blowtorch, shooting flames up to 30 inches high.” Putting a chunk of oil shale into your toaster would not offer similar excitement, but in a strange way, Shell’s fascinating experiments near Rangely resemble something Barry might attempt if he had the money to build the world’s largest underground toaster oven.

The plan is audacious. Shell proposes to heat a 1,000-foot-thick section of shale to 700 degrees, then keep it that hot for three years. Beam me up, Scotty, but first share some details. Imagine a 100-acre production plot. Inside that area, the company would drill as many as 1,000 wells. Next, long electric heaters would be inserted in preparation for a multi-year bake. It’s a high-stakes gamble, but if it works, a 6-mile-by- 6-mile area could, over the coming century, produce 20 billion barrels, roughly equal to remaining reserves in the lower 48 states.

Although Shell’s method avoids the need to mine shale, it requires a mind-boggling amount of electricity. To produce 100,000 barrels per day, the company would need to construct the largest power plant in Colorado history. Costing about $3 billion, it would consume 5 million tons of coal each year, producing 10 million tons of greenhouse gases. (The company’s annual electric bill would be about $500 million.) To double production, you’d need two power plants. One million barrels a day would require 10 new power plants, five new coal mines. And 10 million barrels a day, as proposed by some, would necessitate 100 power plants.

How soon will we know whether Shell’s technology is economic? The company plans to do more experiments, before making a final decision by 2010. If it pulls the trigger, it would be at least three or four years before the first oil would flow, perhaps at a rate of 10,000 barrels a day. That’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent of current U.S. consumption. But if it turns out that Shell needs more energy to produce a barrel of oil than a barrel contains, bets are off. That’s the equivalent of burning the furniture to keep the house warm. $$$ Energy is the original currency; electricity its most valuable form. Using coal-fired electricity to wring oil out of rocks is like feeding steak to the dog and eating his Alpo.

In a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. With half the world’s oil shale resources located here, our region is committed. Another recent report by the RAND Corp. warned that if oil shale developers “overstress the environmental carrying capacity of the area, we may never see more than a few hundred thousand barrels per day of production.” Amen.

Large-scale development of the kind proposed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Pombo would be a disaster. The DOE casually dedicates all of western Colorado’s surplus water to oil shale, proposes enormous open-pit mines 2,000 feet deep, and advocates retorting up to 6 billion tons of shale each year. That’s twice the tonnage of all coal mined in the U.S. and China. This is not a vision, it is a nightmare.

Americans love panaceas. We want thinner thighs in 30 days, a pill to cure baldness, an ultrasonic carburetor that will double our mileage. A magic wand would be nice, because the nation faces serious energy challenges. Since domestic oil production peaked 30 years ago, the need for energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy has been obvious. Instead, like an addict on a binge, we continue to pursue a policy of “strength through exhaustion.” Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before improving our woeful vehicle efficiency is one example of this brain-dead approach.

What contribution can oil shale make to energy security? Producing 100,000 barrels per day of shale oil does not violate the laws of physics. But the nation currently consumes that much oil every seven minutes. Improving the efficiency of our automobiles by 2 miles per gallon would save 10 times as much fuel, saving consumers $100 billion at the pump. The National Academy of Sciences has stated that cars, trucks and SUVs that get 30, 40 or 50 miles per gallon are doable. An aggressive national commitment to fuel efficiency is not optional, it’s inevitable. In time, a more efficient fleet could save 20 times as much petroleum as oil shale is likely to ever provide.

All hype aside, oil shale is the poorest of the fossil fuels, containing far less energy than crude oil, much less even than hog manure, peat moss or Cap’n Crunch. A meager amount of energy, tightly bound up in an enormous volume of rock, oil shale seems destined to remain an elusive bonanza, the petroleum equivalent of fool’s gold.

Randy Udall directs the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a nonprofit energy office in Carbondale. Steve Andrews is a Denver-based energy expert.

Further reading

2005.  James T Bartis, et. al. Oil Shale Development in the United States Prospects and Policy Issues. Prepared for the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy by RAND.

Oct 2008. Walter Youngquist. SHALE OIL–THE ELUSIVE ENERGY.
Hubbert Center Newsletter # 98/4 M. King Hubbert center for Petroleum Supply Studies.

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