Opinion: Oil shale - A vast resource that can't be dismissed

02 02, 2012 by The Hill

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for an all-of-the-above approach to energy as a critical part of securing this country’s future – and we agree. The United States must pursue all of its energy options – including increased domestic oil and natural gas production, coal, nuclear, renewables and more.

That includes unconventional energy sources. Certainly, the United States is realizing almost unimaginable growth in the development of oil and natural gas from shale, which is powering an economic boom in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and others.

Just a few years ago, that hardly seemed likely. Yet, the latest data from the Energy Information Administration demonstrates how technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have dramatically increased America’s natural gas potential to the point that the EIA now says the U.S. is home to the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world, and that by 2035, 70 percent of the country’s gas supply will be produced by fracking from shale and tight rock formations.

Let’s talk about another unconventional energy source: oil shale, which will be discussed this week by the House Natural Resources Committee as it considers legislation to promote access to U.S. resources. By all accounts this resource base is enormous. The largest and highest quality oil shale deposits are in sparsely populated areas of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and the potentially recoverable oil from Western U.S. oil shale deposits is estimated at more than 800 billion barrels, or nearly three times the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia (267 billion). In its September 2011 report on North American resources, the National Petroleum Council notes that given the right technological advances, the potential of oil shale could be significant in terms of energy and jobs.

Easily confused with oil that is extracted by fracturing shale formations to released trapped oil, oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing a solid material (kerogen) that converts to liquid oil when heated. Historically, oil shale has proven to be technically, environmentally and economically challenging to develop. However, through ongoing research efforts, new and innovative production oil shale technologies are emerging. Today several dozen technology and resource development companies are working on the next generation of oil shale technologies. Companies have shown they can extract oil shale with minimal surface disturbance, followed by programs to restore the environment to its natural state.

Several technologies have been developed around the world to make oil shale commercially viable in countries including Brazil, China and Estonia. With the United States holding nearly three times the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia in shale oil, we need the right policies to set the stage for commercial viability.

Some argue oil shale shouldn’t be pursued as a resource, claiming it will never be commercially viable – apparently unaware of its commercial success in other countries. If anything, the energy from shale revolution in this country as well as the continued development of alternative and renewable energy sources suggest no potential resource should be dismissed because of its current commercial viability.

The president is right: an all-of-the-above approach is the best path for securing America’s energy future. In oil shale, the United States has another vast energy resource that can’t be dismissed – one that would be best developed by industry and the marketplace, guided by clear policies and a stable regulatory regime.