Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shale Oil

Chris Martenson wrote an excellent article entitled "Dangerous Ideas" that deals a lot with shale oil and how media uses it to downplay peak oil and play a rosy future full of unlimited energy. The US has the biggest reserves today but only a small production. Lately there are a lot of news articles published that report of new evidence showing that fracking (needed for converting oil shale into usable oil and gasoline) is safe. Example articles here and here. With both in place, a mega deposit of oil shale in North Dakota and safe extraction processes through fracturing, all is well now according to the media.

The reality is different. The world's leading shale oil producer is Estonia. The problems seem to become clear when one considers that in 2002, about 97% of air pollution, 86% of total waste and 23% of water pollution in Estonia came from the power industry, which uses oil shale as the main resource for its power production (source). This is quite a contrast to media reports in the US. Efficiency is another factor. More recent studies estimates the EROEI of oil shales to be 1–2:1 or 2–16:1 – depending when self-energy is counted as a cost or internal energy is exclude and only purchased energy is counted as input (source). That means in the very best case, with 1 gallon of external oil as input one can generate 16 gallons of oil from shale. Worst case, for 1 gallon of external oil as input one can generate 2 gallons of shale oil. If we add in all the energy from the oil shale that is also used up in the shale-to-oil conversion then the energy calculation is as follows: In the worst case, for using up 1 calorie of input we extract 1 calorie in form of oil as output. In the best case, for using up 1 calorie of input we extract 2 calorie in form of oil as output. In other words the extraction process consumes 0.5 to 1 calorie to extract 1 calorie of oil. As far as I know this calculation only covers the conversion process, it does not cover the energetic cost to produce all the equipment necessary, the energetic cost to transport the equipment to the exploration site, the energetic cost to clean up and "heal" the site after exploration is being abandoned, etc. Furthermore, extracted shale oil is not liquid at environmental temperatures. In order to pump it through pipes the pipes would have to be heated, making transport even more energy consuming. If we add all this into the equation, it is a clear loss. No doubt we can technically extract energy, but it can only be done with massive energetic input, massive current resource use and leaving the cleanup to future generations.

Pay attention to the next shale oil stories you hear in the media.

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