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Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Colorado): Shell expands oil shale research project: “As a result of its testing thus far, Shell estimates it can extract one million barrels of oil from one acre of shale.”: Friday November 4, 2005


Donna Gray

Post Independent Staff


After years of testing a new method of extracting oil from shale, Shell Exploration and Production is ready to go on to the next phase of a research plan that it hopes will lead to commercial production by the end of the decade.


Tracy C. Boyd, sustainable development manager with Shell, presented the company's plan to the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board Thursday evening.


On about 20,000 acres it owns in the Piceance Basin southwest of Meeker, Shell has been testing an in-place process that heats oil-bearing rock to between 650 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit, then pumps the liquid oil out of the ground.


The process replaces the traditional method of room and pillar or open pit mining and an above-ground retort process of heating the shale to remove the oil.


Colorado's oil shale reserves, located mainly in the Piceance Basin, are the richest in the country.


"We have a world-class energy resource here," Boyd said. "No one has figured out how to get it out of the ground cost-effectively."


In the late 1970s and early '80s, due to a worldwide oil shortage, the federal government subsidized development of alternate fuel sources, including oil shale in northwestern Colorado. Oil shale production, by the mining and retort process, never became commercially viable.


In 1982, the economic boom of energy development in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties took a steep dive when Exxon closed its Colony Oil Shale project in Parachute and put more than 2,000 people out of work in one day.


Shell's new research may change that.


"We really think we're on to something," Boyd said.


As a result of its testing thus far, Shell estimates it can extract one million barrels of oil from one acre of shale.


"We produce 3.5 times the amount of energy for every unit (of energy) we put into the ground," Boyd said. The initial test has also resulted in recovery of 62 percent of the oil trapped in the shale, whereas the traditional mining and retort method recovered between 28 and 30 percent, he said.


Shell now has some of the challenges of the in-situ method resolved, he said, including reliable heaters that take from two to three years to heat the rock enough to liquefy the oil. It's also successfully tested - on a small scale - a process to isolate groundwater from the drilling and heating zone.


Boyd said the company will expand the test area of "freezewall," which essentially creates a barrier of frozen water around the production area, isolating the surrounding aquifer. The next research phase will increase the freezewall to an area the size of a football field, he said.


Shell has applied for a 160-acre research and development plot near its holdings in the Piceance Basin which the Bureau of Land Management opened for application earlier this year. Eight companies bid for leases and they will have 10 years to prove their recovery methods are commercially viable, Boyd said.


Boyd also assured the EAB that Shell is committed to proving its method is both economically sound and environmentally responsible. He also said the company intends to conduct an assessment of the potential social and economic effects full blown oil shale production could have on the region.


"That's why we're going slowly, so we do it right," he said. "Our commitment is not to do anything until the time is right." 


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