Read Eric's bio and previous columns
March 23, 2009
In Spite of What You’ll
Hear (Again), Oil Shale Isn’t the Answer
We’re approaching summer, and if past years are any indication, the
squabbling about producing more fossil fuel energy is going to start
very soon. This year, we can expect that to start sometime in May,
gearing up for summer vacation season when gas prices traditionally get
to their highest point.
Economic turmoil has provided some relief to Americans at the pump these
days, bringing the price of gasoline down to a level that is manageable
for most people. If and when recovery starts, we’ll see gas prices that
reflect both greater demand and also the same kinds of supply pressures
and speculating that pushed prices up last year. And we’ll see greater
political pressure to address those prices through long-term programs
pushed as short-term answers.
Last year, it was the fatally flawed notion that we should drill for oil
in the Outer Continental Shelf and in Alaska’s wilderness. It’s notable
that the price of gasoline itself ended this debate a decade before any
decision would have resulted in oil hitting the market. At lower volume
last year, various representatives of the energy industry pushed for
exploitation of America’s reserves of oil shale, especially those in the
these things always seem to be, oil shale was pushed as some kind of
panacea . . . if only we allowed people to get oil from shale, our
problems would be done. That’s the kind of talk you get from junkies,
though. It’s always about easy answers.
Put short, oil shale is neither oil nor shale. It’s rock that contains
hydrocarbons that can be converted into a synthetic crude oil, but the
process is energy- and water-intensive. As a result, it never caught on
because it costs a lot of money. It popped back up last summer because
the price of oil had finally made it economically viable, not because
hippies quashed it in the ‘70s, which is what we were told.
This week, a report was issued by an environmental advocacy group in the
West revealed that several major energy companies were locking up water
rights in northwestern Colorado. It appears that the fossil fuel
industry is banking on feeding America’s petroleum fix through oil
There’s an old saying in the West: “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for
fighting.” That reflects not just the scarcity of water in the West, but
also the complexity of water rights. The history of water rights in the
West is a Byzantine one. Who gets what from the Colorado River, part of
the region, is a twisted and contorted set of arrangements that have
naturally landed before the U.S. Supreme Court for sorting out.
There is one other thing that is true. That set of arrangements was,
when established, based on an overly generous estimation of cyclical
precipitation rates. That is, an examination of the climate record
established that the accords were all hashed out during an especially
wet period for the Southwest. When it gets drier out there, expect more
legal wrangling and interstate squabbling. It’s worth noting that at one
point, Arizona deployed its militia in defense of its access to Colorado
This raises serious questions about whether there will be both the water
and energy necessary to fulfill promises to keep America motoring using
oil shale. It’s an issue further complicated because global warming
scenarios suggest that climate change will prompt longer and more severe
droughts in the American Southwest.
This, in turn, points to the grave nature of petroleum-based fuel
stocks. The lifeblood of the American economy for most of the last
century has been petroleum. It’s easy and relatively cheap to refine
into something usable. The costs of that conversion go up as it becomes
necessary to construct more complicated processes to squeeze what is
useful from what isn’t. In the case of oil shale, that process is
potentially prohibitive in terms of available resources.
North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
Click here to talk to our writers and
editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.
To e-mail feedback
about this column,
click here. If you enjoy this writer's
work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry
This is Column #
Request permission to publish here.