Oil from shale: Vawter to discuss region’s future with oil shale Sept. 23 in Rangely

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RANGELY — Glenn Vawter has kept the faith. And, in his line of work, that hasn’t been easy.
Vawter is executive director of the National Oil Shale Association in Glenwood Springs. The history of oil shale as a viable and economical energy source has been shaky, to say the least.
But Vawter has made it his life’s work.
He will talk about where he sees oil shale development currently and where he sees it going during a presentation Sept. 23 at a meeting of the Community Networking Group in Rangely. The program will start at noon in the Weiss Building Conference Room on the Colorado Northwestern Community College campus.
Rangely resident Peggy Rector and Vawter go back a long way, to the days of the last big oil shale push, in the 1980s. She invited him to speak to the Community Networking Group.
“I’ve known him for years,” said Rector, herself a proponent of oil shale development. “I met him before, in the ‘80s. He’s one of the foremost (oil shale) authorities. He’s really knowledgeable. He’s been involved (with oil shale development) for years.”
Rector knows a thing or two about oil shale herself.
She recently testified in Denver at a state legislative hearing. Rector is chairwoman of a group called Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale.
“If done right, oil shale development can provide significant economic benefits to western Colorado, while maintaining the rural character, agricultural businesses and outdoor recreational opportunities that have long been the proud hallmarks of our region,” she said in her testimony.
That’s a message Vawter has been preaching for years. Even when his was the lone voice in the wilderness.
Vawter has been promoting oil shale development for going on 35 years, and he believes the industry is closer now than it has ever been to achieving major breakthroughs in technology and production.
“You know, I am pretty optimistic,” Vawter said. “I see the potential for it, the huge reserves.”
Rector, too, remains hopeful.
“I think we’d all like to see it come about,” she said.
But, still, there is a long way to go.
“I think it’s another decade off before we see commercial production in earnest,” Vawter said. “I think the Colorado projects are at least a decade away.”
Those projects include efforts by Shell, Chevron, AMSO (American Shale Oil Company) and ExxonMobil, which are heavily involved in oil shale development in the Piceance Basin in Rio Blanco County.
“They are all looking at in situ production, which means getting the shale oil out of the ground without mining it, but they all do it in different ways,” Vawter said. “It is akin to what is conventional oil and gas production. The difference with oil shale is you have to heat it up to a very high temperature.”
But it’s a complex and expensive proposition.
Shell has been working at it the longest. The company was around for the last oil shale push in the 1980s, and it came back after what is called Black Sunday, when virtually overnight oil shale development in northwest Colorado came to a screeching halt.
“I saw us go through the last boom and bust,” Vawter said.
So, what’s the difference this time?
“We were trying to use old technologies that had been developed in previous decades, because of the big rush to get into production,” he said of the big push to develop oil shale production in the 1970s and 1980s. “It’s different this time. The companies are doing the research to get better and more economic technologies.”
Frank Cooley of Meeker is another believer in oil shale and has been for many years. A retired attorney, Cooley started out as a geologist.
“I’m a very strong believer in the necessity of developing the resource of oil shale,” Cooley said. “But I’m also aware of the burdens and handicaps that have to be overcome.”
Cooley also cited the lack of support for oil shale at the state level.
“I’m immensely disappointed with the position of the Salazars (Sen. Ken and Rep. John) and Gov. Ritter,” Cooley said. “There are certainly reasons to doubt there will be a recognition of the importance of oil shale … until they are no longer in power. If I sound frustrated about the political situation, I am indeed.”
Locally, however, there is support for oil shale development. Earlier this month, the town of Rangely adopted a resolution supporting “the development of this important resource.”
And, while there appears to be growing support for oil shale development, like anything, the issue becomes politicized.
“It has become kind of a political football in this election cycle,” Vawter said. “It can be hard to ferret out the facts and separate them from the sensational, which tends to be around oil shale.”
So, just like it can be difficult to extract oil shale from rock, it can be difficult to glean the truth about oil shale from the fiction.
That’s where Vawter’s group — the National Oil Shale Association — comes in.
“We’re a not-for-profit group, which started in earnest Jan. 1 this year, with the mission and goal of education,” he said. “We don’t lobby. We don’t promote particular legislation or candidates. We try to get information that is factual out to the public.”
Government, though, will play an important role if oil shale development is going to succeed, Vawter said.
“I think if there was going to be an acceleration of commercialization (of oil shale), that imperative would have to come from government, to push that,” he said. “But, right now, there are really no government programs that are funding research.”
Though, Vawter said, with a new administration taking over in January, that could change.
“I think, after the election, it’s possible that might happen,” he said. “We’ve even seen President Bush say the words ‘oil shale’ in a couple of addresses, something we haven’t heard since President Carter. In the 1970s, we had the government really pushing for unconventional sources of petroleum, from the federal level. But that doesn’t exist now.
“We have not heard either of the (presidential) candidates talk about it. They say we need more domestic drilling or offshore production. But I can understand that, it (oil shale) has always been a political football.”
With gas prices still more than $4 a gallon, like here in Rio Blanco County, and politicians’ calls for less reliance on foreign oil, oil shale development could be poised for a breakthrough, finally.
Cooley’s belief in oil shale has not wavered.
“I have believed, for more than 50 years, there isn’t any other long-range answer to the energy problem than the successful development of the resource in the Green River Formation,” he said.
There are huge oil shale reserves in the Green River Formation, which Cooley, Rector and Vawter all agree, can’t be ignored.
The formation, which encompasses three states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — is said to hold oil shale deposits that are on the same scale as the vast oil reserves in the Middle East. In Piceance Basin alone, there is reportedly five times the amount of oil per acre as there is in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska — site of the largest oil field in North America.
“It’s the reserves,” Vawter said. “It’s always those reserves that drive those discussions on oil shale.
“But the challenge is to take advantage of this huge resource,” he said. “With oil shale, if it’s developed, it’s a lot more sustainable (than traditional oil production). It could go on for 100 years.”