A 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that three trillion barrels of oil lay buried underneath the Green River Formation shared by Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Ongoing technological innovations could allow half of the shale oil there to be recovered – a gargantuan figure that is equal to all—yes, all—of the world’s known oil deposits combined.
Six years after the site’s initial discovery in 2010, media attention has dwindled as oil majors try and fail to commercially extract the fuel. Both Shell and Chevron abandoned their efforts in the area after anteing tens of millions of dollars on the projects.
Why? Because neither of the two most common and affordable extraction methods have proven effective so far.
To put the difficulty of engineering innovation in the shale oil extraction field into perspective, it’s helpful to look at the length of time it has taken for shale to become as cost-efficient as it is today.
“Oil shale is essentially oil that Mother Nature did not finish cooking, and thus to convert it into oil, heat has to be added,” according to a 2012 article by The Oil Drum that was published just as shale production was gaining speed. “The energy requirements -- plus the fact that oil shale production requires a lot of water in a very dry environment -- have kept oil shale commercialization out of reach for over 100 years.”
Since then, the most conventional extraction processes - like the ones in place in the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations in the south – either bring the oil to the Earth’s surface and liquefy it or place an electric heater deep beneath the surface to convert the shale rock to liquid and gas before hauling it up. Related: Are We Set For A Seasonal Slide In Oil Prices?
The geographic realities of Green River and the form of the oil found there have caused the two tried-and-true methods to cost too much to be profitable.
The “tight oil” found in the two Texas basins is fluid oil trapped in the pores of the shale rock that pervades the extraction sites. All petroleum engineers have to do is break the rock to get the oil to flow, and then bring the product to the surface.
Green River, on the other hand, stores oil in a waxy substance that needs to be boiled at 500 degrees Celsius before it becomes refinery-ready.
Technical hang-ups aside, land ownership issues could cause further production obstacles. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls three-fourths of land that the formation sits under.
If the feds allow drilling to start, the region could add thousands of jobs, and state governments would earn millions in tax revenues. But the environmental side effects of pollution and wildlife habitat destruction could damage the three states’ world famous nature tourism sectors.
There is also the risk of creating boom and bust cycles in small cities, making it difficult for local governments to plan for growth. If Brent oil prices rise to $80 a barrel – which they are not slated to do until after 2020 – and new innovations allow extraction at Green River to be profitable at the new price-point, Green River workers would still be vulnerable to oil price swings. Related: Oil Holds Gains After OPEC Deal
Approximately half of U.S. shale oil production projects break even at $60 a barrel or less. Many wells in Bakken turn profitable at just $30 a barrel.
Green River’s status as the most expensive shale extraction project in the country would put thousands of employees – skilled and unskilled – out of work in bearish markets. Companies will prefer their more profitable prospects, and the small towns hosting their workers will see thrilling upswings and abysmal downswings.
Government bodies and engineers still have a lot of policy and technology pioneering to do before the U.S. can take its next step towards energy independence at Green River.
By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com
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