Energy experts said oil shale can meet America's future need for transportation fuels, but it's going to take a new technology and a lot of time before it reaches automobile gas tanks.
That was the message given to 75 guests at the Northwest Colorado Energy Producers Association dinner Thursday evening at The Center of Craig.
Tracy Boyd, a manager with Shell's Unconventional Resource Energy (SURE) division, said that the largest countries in the world, including China and India will double their energy consumption by the year 2050.
As the world's supply of "easy oil," is depleted, the search for not-so-easy oil will become more critical, Boyd said.
He hopes that new technology being developed by Shell will lead the way to tap into oil shale reserves that are estimated to be three times larger than Saudi Arabia reserves.
According to estimates, 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil may be found in Northwest Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming.
Shell is working closely with the Bureau of Land Management to get permits for exploration because 70 percent of those reserves are located on federally owned land.
The process still being developed to free the oil from the shale is a "down-hole heater," technology, and it is a time consuming process.
The "in-situ conversion process," or ICP, entails lowering heaters down a drill hole and heating the rock to a temperature between 650 and 700 degrees.
After a heating process that takes three to four years, the product brought to the surface is one-third gas and two-thirds light oil, which is easily refined into transportation fuels such as diesel, jet fuel and gasoline.
The secret to heating the shale and allowing the oil to be released, without effecting ground water supplies, involves a "freeze-wall" process that contains the heat to the area near the drill hole.
"A 15-foot-thick wall of ice will shield ground water from the ICP zone," Boyd said. "That will isolate the shale on the inside, and protect the water on the outside."
Groundwater will be removed from the ICP zone and stored, Boyd said. It will be replaced when the oil extraction is completed.
The freezing process takes two years before the heating process begins. That process is expected to take three to four years before oil can be extracted from the shale.
Although it is a time consuming process, the richest zones of oil shale may hold 25 gallons of oil per ton of shale, Boyd said.
He said the Piceance Basin area has thicker and richer deposits of oil shale than other areas, requiring less processing to turn into fuels.
He hopes that some of the extracted gas and oil can be used to power the heaters and meet energy costs of extracting the oil.
Oil will be transported out of the area by pipeline.
After the presentation, Jeff Comstock, natural resources director for Moffat County, said that it will be interesting to follow the experiment, noting that the map displayed by Boyd shows oil reserves coming into Moffat County.
Former Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos, currently a consultant for Northwest Colorado Oil and Gas, said she in encouraged by the way the project is progressing slowly and in a more structured manner than previous oil shale projects.
"I think it's an absolutely feasible project," she said. "We need to produce energy from the oil shale in the Rocky Mountain region."
Shell has applied for three, 160-acre oil shale leases from the BLM in Colorado. Boyd said Chevron is applying for leases, as well.