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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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Kerogen Oil Shale: The Next Rock of Ages?

As with everything else, it’s all about economic feasibility. This is the story of kerogen (oil shale), and could be a huge one, or it could just stay in the ground for a few more centuries until we figure out how to get it out of the rock without breaking the bank.

Oil shale is not conventional oil that can flow through geological formations. It is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen which is a fossilized mixture of insoluble organic material that, when heated, breaks down into crude oil and natural gas. For this reason, oil shale—not to be confused with shale oil—is often called “kerogen”.

Chemically, oil shale consists of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur and forms from compacted organic material. This rock has not been geologically buried for a time sufficient to produce conventional hydrocarbons. Though it hasn’t been buried for long enough to form conventional hydrocarbons, oil shale formation began millions of years ago through the deposition of silt and organic debris on lakebeds and sea bottoms.

Is it a good investment? Well, that depends.

Other than what we’ve noted above, we don’t know too much about kerogen, other than it cannot be extracted via traditional methods, or through the use of organic chemical solvents. The thing is, kerogen is INSIDE the rock itself—part and parcel of the rock—so in order to get it out one has to use thermal technologies. Sometimes there is so much rock in proportion to the kerogen in place that it’s not feasible to even try.

Worldwide it is estimated that there are nearly 3 trillion barrels of kerogen, but much of it may not be accessible.  

There are two ways to get the kerogen out of the rock. Both involve underground mining, one using thermal treatments that are completed above surface, the other using in situ thermal processes. The in situ process involves heating the source rock for several years until the organic material has vaporized and then can be recovered through traditional well extraction methods. Shell is the pioneer in this field, but it’s all still at the experimental phase.  

The entire process is horrifyingly energy intensive. From the US perspective, it would take enough electricity to power up 9 million homes just to extract 1 million barrels per day (or 5% of nationwide consumption). Likewise, the amount of water needed is a crippling 46…




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