Its December, most people have the holidays in mind so those of you here are serious.  Holidays also bring opportunities for discussions so today I’m bringing up the major oil reserve here in the U.S., a major world energy resource, and covering some of the useful information that can ally some fears.

When it comes to oil the easy to find, free flowing, and cheap to prepare for products is either been used up or in the control of governments rather than competitive independent oil companies.  But the largest reserve on earth found so far is still in the U.S.  It’s the oil shale deposits of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

US Oil Shale Deposit Map. Click image for the largest view.

US Oil Shale Deposit Map. Click image for the largest view.

In perspective, while total world resources of oil shale deposits are conservatively estimated at 2.6 trillion barrels, the U.S. has close to two trillion barrels of crude equivalent. That’s about double all the crude oil that was ever produced worldwide since petroleum age began.

Called the Green River Shale Formation, it was first discovered in 1924.  Now famous, it’s found in three different ancient lake basins where the shale formations cover tens of thousands of square miles. The layers of sediment in this formation stretch undisturbed for miles filed with Type I kerogen.

The shale is a soft sedimentary rock that easily fractures into the formation layers, each composed of minute particles of clay, which can be removed in ways similar to the processes used at the oil sands deposits in Canada. Green River formed multi layers through erosion. There are 40 million layers in one part of the formation.

Deposits within these layers are fossilized plant, animal life and algae, which has turned over millions of years into kerogen. Geology testing shows the formation was formed through countless floods perhaps through 500 to 700 millions of years.  The kerogen is a waxy organic substance that was formed from algae, plants, vegetation, and all forms of animal life. Over millions of years the organics were covered in layers of sediment, and subjected to very high pressures.  The physical transformation resulted into the kerogen form of non-conventional crude oil embedded in the layers of sediment.

When kerogen is subjected to very high temperatures it converts into various liquid and gas hydrocarbons. Much of the resulting liquids can then be refined like regular high quality light crude oil.  This is becoming very highly desirable stuff.

Of late the Green River deposit has gotten more attention.  $147 dollar crude prices will do that, but today’s near $70 isn’t likely enough.  It’s because of the processes needed to extract the kerogen and convert it to crude. There are two conventional approaches to oil shale processing.

In one process the shale is fractured and heated to obtain gases and liquids by drilling wells into the formations and sending in heat energy to get it to flow as the Canadian folks do it calling the process ‘in situ’.  The second is by mining, transporting, and heating the shale to about 450º C, adding hydrogen to the resulting product, and disposing of and stabilizing the waste.  The first process leaves a lot below ground in heavy long chain hydrocarbons without added hydrogen.  The second is a mining operation with all the controversial issues that come along with such huge earth surface changing efforts.

Both processes use considerable water in a place where water isn’t plentiful at all. The total energy and water requirements together with environmental and monetary costs have so far kept production uneconomic. During the oil crisis of the 1970’s, major oil companies and the U.S. government spent several billion dollars in various unsuccessful attempts to commercially extract shale oil.  But that was 40 years ago . . .

The early efforts ran until about 10 years ago and were suspended.  But several oil and energy companies are revisiting technologies to try to successfully extract kerogen from shale and economically turn it into crude oil.  Royal Dutch Shell is revisiting and its representative Terry O’Cannon says, “We try to keep from speculating too much and keep expectations low because we don’t know if this (newer) technology will be successful and viable in the long term.”  The fact is it’s the price of high quality crude oil that matters, and upgraded kerogen is top-flight stuff.

That makes the other energy and fuel research efforts of strong interest.  Oil shale recovery is dependent on a lot of heat energy so all efforts to drive down heat energy costs are going to help.  The other matter is coming up with free hydrogen.  Cheap hydrogen would offer a much slower consumption of the kerogen for either mined or in situ processes while providing more and higher quality products.  One thought is that kerogen is a valuable way to use hydrogen and extend the U.S. fuel reserve by enriching kerogen in situ and using the resource over many decades or centuries.

Environmentalists might groan at the prospects, but reality makes clear crude oil will be with us for decades if not centuries to come.  Extending the resource by conservation, upgrading and enhancements makes great sense as well as the potential to limit the export of hard currency.  The investments would be in the U.S. with payrolls, taxes and downstream effects where the consumers live and work as well.  Kerogen can’t responsibly be called off as a resource, it offers too much.  But as alternatives improve and develop, some of the payoff could be kerogen development breakthroughs as well.


6 Comments so far

  1. Jagdish on December 16, 2009 11:29 PM

    It is necessary to dig up a lot of shale to extract oil.A worthwhile process will be to convert it to gas in situ, like coal to gas, and harvest the gas.The gas could be used directly as fuel or converted to the desired liquid fuels if required, at a lower cost than transporting it to an extraction plant and processing it there.

  2. Ed was here on December 17, 2009 9:55 AM

    Hi there,
    Super post, Need to mark it on Digg.

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  6. Dorinda Navar on September 18, 2011 9:20 AM

    Thanks for posting. Good to see that not everyone is using RSS feeds to build their blogs 😉

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