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Technology Unlocks World's Biggest Oil Field

Three times larger than Saudi Arabia's proven reserves, the oil shale deposits in the Western United States are already being tapped, and are expected to eventually produce 10 million barrels/day in potentially an environmentally friendly manner.
September 9, 2006, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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NM Senator Pete Domenici states that oil shale has "the potential to shake the world", and possibly do so in a way that doesn't despoil the Rockies, according to Shell Oil.

"Oil shale deposits in Colorado and neighboring areas of Utah and Wyoming are estimated to contain 800 billion recoverable barrels, three times larger than Saudi Arabia's proven reserves of conventional crude, and the equivalent of 40 years of U.S. oil consumption."

"Unlike conventional deposits of petroleum, found in a liquid form that can be pumped to the surface, oil shale doesn't even contain oil. Instead, the rock is impregnated with kerogen, a chemically immature hydrocarbon -- essentially, oil's geological ancestor."

Of course, the oil shale is not a new discovery. Billions of dollars were spent trying to extract it after oil spiked during the Carter administration, but Reagan pulled the subsidy, and attempts ceased in 1982.

To stimulate the sector's development, in June the House passed a bill written by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, calling for much lower royalties on oil shale than the 12.5 percent for conventional oil and gas. The bill suggests companies pay royalties of about 1 percent until they recoup their investments."

"This time, Shell is pioneering a much different technology that company officials say is more efficient, profitable and environmentally friendly.

"Instead of mining the shale, since 1996 Shell has experimented with in situ, or in-place, extraction of oil from the ground."

Essentially, the shale formation is heated to about 700 degrees Fahrenheit for 2-3 years, the equivalent of millions of years, "chemically transforming it into a high-grade oil that is easily pumped to the surface. In an experiment that ended in May, 1,500 barrels of light, sweet crude were produced from one site."

A frozen barrier contains the oil from polluting the ground water.

"Shell has invited environmentalists to its Colorado test site, and many leave favorably impressed.

"Shell is certainly making a genuine effort to reach out to elected officials, ranchers and environmentalists," said Steve Smith, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society in Denver. "They are saying the right things, and they are moving slowly like they should."

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Published on Monday, September 4, 2006 in The San Francisco Chronicle
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