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RBC I Brad McCloud’s message at last week’s community networking meeting was uncompromising: do not dismiss oil shale’s potential as a viable energy source in a world of increasing demand.
McCloud, executive director of the Grand Junction-based Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale (ECCOS), focused the discussion on common conceptions—or, in his view, misconceptions—the public has about the resource, one-fifth of which exists in deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
“The oil shale potential we have here in Colorado is roughly 1,300 barrels per acre,” McCloud said. “It is a very concentrated carbon element that we have. The potential for the energy source is very, very high.”
Obstacles to oil shale research and development have, over the last 30 years, been formidable. Making the extraction process economically viable and a lack of government regulatory policies have stymied the industry’s growth and commercialization. Other challenges, McCloud said, are tied into misinformation about how an oil shale industry would affect the environment, particularly an area’s water supply.
One commonly cited statistic, for example, estimates that a plant could require as many as 10 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. McCloud said that number is simply not accurate.
“Oil shale will use water….There’s virtually no industry that’s going to produce energy that does not use water,” McCloud said. “But current technologies are saying they’re going to use anywhere from zero—I think that’s overly optimistic—to three barrels of water for every one barrel of oil.”
The availability of that water will come from groundwater and water produced from moisture extracted when the ground is heated, or from water otherwise discarded by industries like natural gas, McCloud said.
The public also misunderstands that water usage factors in not only what is taken from the ground but the amount used in dust mitigation. Given that producing a two-liter bottle of soda takes eight barrels of water from start to finish, McCloud said that a one- to three-barrel estimate, including the water used in mitigation and that’s potentially recyclable and reusable, is reasonable.
“This industry is not going to pop up overnight and start sucking the rivers dry,” McCloud said. “It’s just not going to be able to do that. It’s going to have a ramp-up period. Over time, water usage will drop off as they come up with better practices and better technology. The industry already owns the water rights for the majority of water that may need to be used.”
During the presentation, McCloud described the world’s projected increased dependence on oil, along with other countries’ pursuit of oil shale development. Whether surface or in-ground extraction methods would be used depend largely on the geography and geology of the land, he said.
But without the federal government giving access to land leases, many of which were granted under the Bush-era Energy Policy Act in 2005 and repealed by the Obama administration’s environmental impact statement in 2008, future exploration on federal lands may be a moot point.
McCloud said that the long-term viability of the resource keeps ECCOS committed to pursuing oil shale development.
“A non-politicized analysis of oil shale and production needs to be based on facts, on research, economics, and science so that we avoid becoming a national sacrifice zone,” McCloud said. “There are pros and cons to any development, whether energy or any other industry. The only way we can do that is to remove the emotion and rhetoric, to get to the core of the situation and find out: is the technology working? Does the industry work? Do we have the socio and economic factors in place to be able to handle the industry? And we need to do it with consistent regulatory policy that gives opportunities for an incentivized industry that has the potential to go commercial.”
McCloud spoke to an audience made up largely of community leaders and businesspeople. His presentation was generally met with approbation.
“The biggest issue for us is controlling the conversation,” Rangely Town Manager Peter Brixius said. “If you look at what’s happening with hydraulic fracturing on the Eastern Slope, or oil shale or water, we don’t control that conversation. The same statistics have been indoctrinated in our children for the past 30 years…unless we have lobbyists in there getting our message across to our representatives and their representatives, that’s not going to change.”