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In oil shale, geology trumps technology

Thirty years of oil-shale failure suggests that such a development remains far off, Cobb writes. And, in a world that is trying to wean itself from fossil fuels because of climate change and the risks of depletion, time may run out unless more realistic technologies are developed.

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / October 1, 2013

A Shell logo is seen at a gas station in London. Shell announced it will shut down its pilot oil shale project in western Colorado after 31 years of experimentation.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters/File

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The belief that technology can always overcome natural limits just took a big hit this week when Royal Dutch Shell PLC decided to shut down its pilot oil shale project in western Colorado after 31 years of experimentation. The ostensible reason is that the company has opportunities elsewhere. Shell says it wants to shift resources away from the intransigent rock and move it to profitable opportunities.

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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That sounds logical. But, it might have sounded logical in any of the last 10 years as oil prices rose to historic heights while oil shale projects languished. Even today the average daily price of crude oil hovers near its historic highs set in 2011 and again in 2012.

The prize for anyone who profitably unlocks these deposits is huge, an estimated 800 billion barrels of recoverable resources. So why isn't oil shale yielding to the mighty combination of deep pockets, sophisticated technology and high prices?

A clue comes from one sentence in coverage in The Denver Post: "Full-scale production would probably have required building a dedicated power plant." In simple terms, it takes energy to get energy. Shell's process requires copious amounts of electricity to heat the rock in place through boreholes in order to release the waxy hydrocarbons embedded in it. In this pilot project, the subterranean rock was heated for three years before liquids were captured and brought to the surface for further processing. 

(Oil shale is a promotional term. Oil shale is neither shale, nor does it contain oil. It is better characterized as organic marlstone. It contains kerogen, a waxy, long-chain hydrocarbon that must be extensively processed to make it into a synthetic form of crude oil. Oil shale is often confused with oil taken from deep shale formations such as the Bakken in North Dakota, oil properly called "tight oil.")

The ratio of energy outputs to inputs for oil shale is estimated to be about 2 to 1, according to a study by Cleveland Cutler who has long examined energy return on energy invested. Shell claimed a ratio of around 3 to 1 (though that claim no longer appears on the project site). That seems good until you realize that we are currently running the world on crude which has a ratio around 20 to 1.

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