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Searching the “Panacea Pantry” for a quick fix

With gasoline at four dollars, and diesel near five, your typical service station is as glum as a morgue. Motorists aren’t in the mood for friendly banter when they are hemorrhaging cash. A typical American family will spend $3000 more on gasoline this year than they did a decade ago.

In the last 150 years, humans have used one trillion barrels of conventional oil. At the current rate, we would exhaust another trillion barrels by 2035, at which point global supply would be running on fumes. But that can’t rate can’t continue, so we’re due for a big-time slowdown. This phenomenon is called peak oil. It’s destined to shove climate change off the front page, hammer your wallet, and change your life.

Capital Hill is panicked about the nation’s petroleum predicament. The US is sending $1.2 billion overseas each day for imported oil. Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gets up early each morning to print a new batch of greenbacks. Is it any wonder the dollar is in freefall?

The search is on for a solution. You've heard about hydrogen. Unfortunately, it's a no-hoper. You’ve read about ethanol. One wag called it the nation’s biggest "corndoggle." Chevrolet promises a new electric car, the Volt. GM is considering assisted suicide for its Hummer brand. Arguments rage on about opening up the Outer Continental Shelf and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; first new oil would be a decade away.

Meanwhile, oil companies Shell and Chevron are reviving an old hope: Unlocking vast supplies of oil shale. Oil shales are immature source rocks, thick deposits of proto-petroleum, oil wannabes. The U.S. has a stupendous amount of them, more than a trillion tons. If only you could convert the energy in these rocks to oil, Colorado would have three times more than Saudi Arabia. If only.

Unfortunately, to harvest the oil in oil shale you have to do what Mother Nature didn’t do: heat the rocks to 700 degrees. For a century, men have periodically mined and crushed shale, then shaked and baked it in giant kilns. But the rocks have proved stubborn, promising much, delivering little.

But now, with oil at $125 a barrel, could oil shale be the salvation we are searching for?

In 2005 the U.S. Department of Energy claimed the nation could wring "200,000 barrels a day from oil shale by 2011, 2 million barrels a day by 2020, and ultimately 10 million barrels a day." Although these predictions are preposterous, as some industry experts admit, they illustrate our hunger for a panacea, a quick fix.

Although Shell has said it will be many years before it makes a decision on whether to go ahead with commercial oil shale development, President George W. Bush recently claimed that oil shale could help alleviate high oil prices.

Last week a Colorado senator published an article that offered a more nuanced take on the prospects for oil shale development. We reprint it below. ASPO-USA is a non-partisan, non-profit, so we invite an opposing view that could be published as soon as next week.

Heedless Rush to Oil Shale, by Senator Ken Salazar (July 15, 2008)

To hear President Bush touting Western oil shale as the answer to $4 per gallon gasoline, as he did again yesterday in the Rose Garden, you would think it was 1908 . . . or 1920 . . . or 1945 . . . or 1974. Every couple of decades over the past century, the immense reserves of the oily rock under Colorado and Utah reemerge as the great hope for our energy future.

Bush and his fellow oil shale boosters claim that if only Western communities would stand aside, energy companies could begin extracting more than 500 billion barrels of recoverable oil from domestic shale deposits. If only the federal government immediately offered even more public lands for development, the technology to extract oil from rock would suddenly ripen, oil supplies would rise and gas prices would fall.

If only.

Since the 19th century, we in the West have been trying to extract oil from the vast oil shale riches that lie under our feet. It is no easy task, and past efforts have failed miserably. Commercial oil shale development would require not only immense financial investments but also an undetermined quantity of (scarce) water from the Colorado River basin and the construction of several multibillion-dollar power plants.

Sometimes it seems that we are getting close to overcoming these barriers. But each time we near a boom, we bust. The last bust, the infamous "Black Sunday" of 1982, left Western communities holding the bill long after the speculators, Beltway boosters and energy companies had taken off.

This time, though, the technologies that companies such as Shell Oil are developing are far more promising. Thanks in part to a research and development program that Congress created in 2005, energy companies are starting to devise a way to heat the rock that holds the oil and force the oil up and out of the ground. Still, that oil would not come easily. It would take around one ton of rock to produce enough fuel to last the average car two weeks.

Furthermore, energy companies are still years away -- 2015 at the earliest -- from knowing whether this technology can cost-effectively produce oil on a commercial scale.

To reach the 2015 goal, we must avoid the pitfalls that have trapped us in the past: the speculation and hype, the shortage of water and power, and the failure to plan for environmental and social impacts. Unless development proceeds in a thoughtful and responsible manner, we risk another massive bust.

Unfortunately, the administration's approach carries none of the Western wisdom acquired over the past century. In a frenzied attempt to move a failed agenda in its last days, the Bureau of Land Management is trying to organize a fire sale of commercial oil shale leases on public land.

This sale would be a tragic case of putting the cart before the horse. How is a federal agency to establish regulations, lease land and then manage oil shale development without knowing whether the technology is commercially viable, how much water the technology would need (no small question in the arid West), how much carbon would be emitted, the source of the electricity to power the projects, or what the effects would be on Western landscapes?

The governors of Wyoming and Colorado, communities and editorial boards across the West agree that the administration's headlong rush is a terrible idea. Even energy companies, including Chevron have said we need to proceed more cautiously on oil shale. With more than 30,000 acres of public land at their disposal to conduct research, development and demonstration projects (in addition to 200,000 undeveloped acres of private oil shale lands they own in Colorado and Utah), they already have more land than they can develop in the foreseeable future.

So why is the president hurrying to sell leases for commercial oil shale development in the West's great landscapes? A fire sale will not lower gas prices. It will not accelerate the development of commercial oil shale technologies.

My family has farmed and ranched in Colorado for five generations. We have seen this speculative spirit before. It is the same spirit that sweeps through gold, silver and uranium markets in the run-up to devastating busts. It is the same spirit that drives some of the West's worst water and land grabs.

So to the boosters who think they have found the answer to our energy crisis, I say: We welcome you to our quest to develop oil shale on a commercial scale. But first let's put the horse back in front of the cart and all start pulling in the same direction. A reckless approach that heightens the risk of an oil shale bust would only set us back.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Colorado.

Randy Udall and Steve Andrews are among the co-founders of ASPO-USA

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