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 Rocky Mountains.


As 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 shale.


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 River water.


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.


© 2009 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 it.

This is Column # EB101. Request permission to publish here.

Op-Ed Writers
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Bob Franken
Lawrence J. Haas
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Gregory D. Lee
David B. Livingstone
Bob Maistros
Rachel Marsden
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jessica Vozel
Jamie Weinstein
Brett Noel
Feature Writers
Mike Ball
Bob Batz
Cindy Droog
The Laughing Chef
David J. Pollay
Business Writers
D.F. Krause