Colorado BLM signs RD&D leases for oil shale development in Rio Blanco County

ExxonMobil, Natural Soda to explore new techniques for oil shale extraction

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“I welcome today’s announcement and look forward to the research findings of the Interior Department, and industry, to determine whether oil shale may someday become a viable part of our energy strategy.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., about the BLM’s announcement to open acreage in Rio Blanco County for research and development of oil shale.

This week the Colorado Bureau of Land Management Office in Lakewood signed two leases for research, demonstration and development of oil shale.

The leases, first approved in September by the BLM’s White River Field Office in Meeker, were awarded to ExxonMobil Exploration Company and Natural Soda Holdings, Inc. to research and test new technologies for commercial oil shale development.

The leases go into effect Dec. 1 on adjacent 160-acre parcels in Rio Blanco County and are valid for a period of 10 years.

“Today’s leases demonstrate our continued commitment to encouraging research and development that will help fill in some of the existing knowledge gaps when it comes to technology, water use and potential impacts of commercial-scale oil shale development,” said Helen Hankins, BLM Colorado state director, in a BLM news release. “To date technological and economic conditions have not combined to support a sustained commercial oil shale industry and this plan lays a strong foundation to explore oil shale’s potential.”

According to previous reports, Natural Soda currently uses a process of injecting hot water underground to dissolve baking soda into a solution that can be brought to the surface.

Its research proposal outlines a similar process for oil extraction, but instead of hot water Natural Soda plans to inject a heater into the ground to unlock liquid petroleum from oil shale.

In its RD&D proposal, ExxonMobil plans to explore the viability of horizontally fracking wells with electrically conducive material to heat oil shale into recoverable liquid petroleum.

“Colorado enjoys an abundance of energy resources that when developed responsibly will help us diversify our energy portfolio and lessen our dependence on foreign oil,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in a separate news release. “I welcome today’s announcement and look forward to the research findings of the Interior Department, and industry, to determine whether oil shale may someday become a viable part of our energy strategy.”

The federal BLM office also published this week its final programmatic environmental impact statement and plan amendments opening up nearly 700,000 acres of federal land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for further RD&D leases to explore development of oil shale, and about 130,000 acres in Utah for exploration activities of tar sands.

Under the BLM plan, federal lands open to oil shale development would first be available for RD&D leases, according to the BLM news release.

Lessees could apply for a commercial lease if conditions of the initial RD&D are satisfied.

The final PEIS also includes provisions for wildlife habitat conservation, including the Greater Sage-grouse, the release states.

Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen and should not be confused with shale oil, according to the release.

When extracted, kerogen can be processed using high heat and pressure to yield a petroleum-like liquid.

Tar sands are sedimentary rocks containing a heavy hydrocarbon compound called bitumen, which can be refined into oil, the release states.

Tar sands in the United States are hydrocarbon wet and differ from Canadian oil sands deposits that are water wet, the release states.

Domestic tar sands would therefore require different processing techniques.

Currently there is no significant commercial oil development in the U.S. from tar sands, the release states.

Joe Moylan can be reached at 875-1794 or jmoylan@craigdailypress.com.

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