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United States oil shale is an important domestic energy resource.

Oil shale in the Western United States contains an amount of oil that is greater than the proven petroleum reserves in the Middle East. If fully developed oil shale could supply the current U.S. consumption of oil for over 70-years.It is the magnitude of this resource that makes it so important to the energy security of the United States.

Despite the size of the resource, the technical, economic, regulatory and political challenges of bringing U.S. oil shale into commercial production have eluded developers for decades. The technologies of the past could not compete with conventional petroleum except for the occasional short-term spikes too short to create a sustainable industry. Currently, reasonably stable and high oil prices are prompting the investigation into new U.S. technologies,and the employment of technologies proven outside the U.S.

The amount of oil in an oil shale resource is measured in gallons of oil per ton of oil shale rock. A ton of oil shale rock in the ground is about a cubic yard of material (3x3x3 foot cube). Oil shale in the Western United States contains from a few to over 50 gallons of oil per ton of rock as measured by an assay technique called Modified Fischer Assay. To be economically attractive most developers look to process oil shale averaging above 20-gallons of oil per ton (or one-half barrel of oil coming from a 3x3x3 foot cube of oil shale in the ground).

Oil is produced from oil shale either by ex-situ or in-situ techniques. Oil shale is mined and processed on the surface by ex-situ technologies. Underground recovery, similar to conventional oil field techniques, is termed in-situ processing. In both approaches oil shale is heated to between 600 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit to extract the shale oil. Commercial ex-situ production of shale oil is occurring in Estonia, China and Brazil. A Paraho II™demonstration scale ex-situ oil shale plant licensed by Shale Tech International Services, LLC (STI) was in full operation in Australia in 2012. Demonstration scale ex-situ plants were operated in the United States some 30-years ago, but none are active at this time. Research, development and demonstration (R,D&D) activities are currently under way in Colorado and Utah to test new and innovative in-situ and modified in-situ technologies.

In 2011-12 the United States Geological Survey (USGS) increased its estimate of the amount of shale oil contained in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to over4-trillion barrels. Not all of the resource is recoverable. Informed sources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy, believe 500 to 800-billion barrels is a reasonable estimate. Commercial production of oil would not occur over night, but would evolve in a methodical manner over years to achieve production levels in the range of 1.5 – 2.0 million barrels per day (30 to 40% of 2012 oil imports from OPEC countries and 100% of the oil imported into the U.S. from OPEC Persian Gulf countries).

Jeremy Boak, PhD of the Colorado School of Mines is a co-author of the attached chart (based upon 2012 USGS data). He concludes the oil shale resource in Wyoming and Colorado dwarf’s conventional U.S. crude oil reserves (the solid orange line at the bottom of the chart), even before Utah is added to the mix.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls over 70% of the western oil shale resource. Access to this resource is being sought by firms interested in developing an oil shale industry.

 

Map of R,D&D Leases
US Oil Shale Resource Click to enlarge

 

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