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Oil Shale - So Just What Is It!

People often say: “You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.” However that’s exactly what shale oil is. An alternative fuel, created by squeezing our planet’s proverbial “Life Blood” out of rock once again has many scientists and energy experts excitedly talking.

Shale oil, otherwise known as “Kerogen;” is a non-conventional, “synthetic” oil that is produced by a process called “Pyrolysis,” a deconstructive distillation method that converts the organic matter (rich hydrocarbons) naturally found within the rock into oil.

During the “pyrolysis processing,” this thick, almost globule, dark brown oil is extracted from the kerogen by altering its chemical make-up at extremely high temperatures inside an environment devoid of oxygen. Then the gooey liquid is cooled, condensed and collected.

The simplest way to think of shale, is as a rock made up of the very same compounds that make up oil, bio-matter from ages ago, that through intense pressure and heat over time, was actually turned into a metamorphic rock instead of a thick gooey liquid.

Some scientific researchers and oil analysts see shale oil as an exceptional alternative energy that is just within our reach that could be utilized to help us rehabilitate ourselves from our present addiction to oil as it progressively declines. Others see it as yet another expensive and time consuming distraction that keeps us from focusing in on “renewable” energy replacements which need to be in place, functioning smoothly, well before oil officially “taps out!”

One point not being contested by either side of the argument; is the fact that shale oil is extremely abundant and is simply sitting here, already safely on, or should I say, “in” western soil, waiting to be harvested and utilized.

Oil rich shale can be found all throughout the world, but the largest deposits rest peacefully below the ground within the United States itself. That’s right, just one thousand feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountains, in and area known as The Green River Formation is the world’s largest untapped oil reserve, holding an estimated Two Trillion barrels of crude oil which is simply sitting there ready to be claimed.

Exactly how valuable are these shale oil reserves hidden in the underground recesses of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming? Experts estimate that if less than 50% of the entire amount of oil available at “The Green River Formation” was successfully mines and refined, it would still provide more than “three times” the amount of oil known to be present in Saudi Arabia.

According to the U.S. Department Of Energy, there are over 16,000 square miles of land containing large deposits of oil shale Every square mile equals 640 acres. Each of these acres holds approximately 2 million barrels of oil, making this area the most concentrated energy source on planet Earth.

This is fuel that is already safely and securely here in the western world, without any additional worry or concern of potentially “shaky” government relationships or aggressively antagonistic geo-political organizations striking, even a temporary death blow, to the oil flow that drives civilization onward.

In the U.S. alone, while being only 4% of the world population, the demand for petroleum products has grown to around 20 million barrels per day or 25% of the all the oil consumed by the entire planet. If oil shale could be used to fulfill even one quarter of that thirst, that 800 billion barrels of oil recovered each year from the Green River Formation would last for more than 400 years!

Wherever there is oil, there is shale oil. This means there are huge, currently untapped reserves of oil shale available, just below the surface of the ground in: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Mexico, China, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Norway, Kuwait, Nigeria, Brazil and Iraq, just to name a few of the top oil producing nations.

So what’s the hold up? Why are we still talking about this instead of actively turning this dream into a manifest reality? The answer to that question lies behind the silver lining of dream, where many of our experts fear a nightmare could be waiting for us, lurking in the shadows.

Oil shale must be mined and therefore risks serious potential environmental degradation or all out devastation should something go wrong. The highly complex and expensive extraction process to get the energy out of the solid rock, pyrolysis, is still very much in its experimental infancy phases, with many of the experts complaining that thus far, results are way behind predicted schedules, as well as being extremely disappointing.

The petroleum yield in shale oil pyrolysis provides only “25 gallons per ton” of shale oil and uses large amounts of electricity in the process, so many energy experts believe making such small amounts of energy per ton of material is actually a “lose – lose” energy – environmental scenario, claiming that the extraction process actually eats up more energy than it is able to provide.

This process involves several meticulously complex & extreme circumstances, from the heating the shale to over 700 degrees in compartments that must remain absolutely devoid of any oxygen and to the quick cooling of the extract with lots of water supplied from the local mountain lakes and streams. Any mistakes or technological breakdowns could quickly prove to be ecologically horrific.


Which leads us to another major snag in the dream; as most of the oil shale reserves lie in wait, under the surface of federal and state protected national parks and wildlife preserves? We have observed the political dances for decades, when natural resources are located within the environs of a government protected wildlife sanctuary; so much of the argument, at this point, is probably mute anyway.

The retort process actually causes the left over debris to expand in size, making the “left-overs” far too big to fit back into the hole that the material originally came out of. Where would all of this debris be put? No one knows! Meanwhile, this slag becomes a sticky, gooey ooze, creating additional concerns that the waste material could easily collect and clog the filters designed to separate and remove it. If it were ever to somehow leak into the ground or water, it would be a mess multiple times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe!

So the jury is still out when it comes to shale oil. Many experts believe that if we can improve on the technology utilized to extract the oil, it could well serve our needs well into a greatly uncertain future!

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  • Anonymous on February 11 2010 said:
    Interesting. Shortly after publishing my oil book, a couple of centuries ago, I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture in Vienna. Later that evening, after the cognac had gone around the table a couple of times, an American buinessman called me a "fool" for believing in (oil) shale. That sobered me up, although I did not appreciate his language - which happened to be right on target.

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