U.S. Eyes Alberta as model for developing oil shale

Green River formation oil locked in over half of the world’s known reserves of oil shale – a sedimentary rock comprising muds and clays that yields oil when heated.

October 01, 2006

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When country rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival immortalized Colorado’s Green River back in the sixties, it was about cross-tie walkers and catfish. Now it’s the U.S. Department of Energy’s turn, but it’s not about the bucolics of the region. It’s about oil – lots of it in the Green River formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that contains up to 1.8 trillion barrels.

Prompted by President Bush’s 2005 Energy Policy Act, the DOE-driven Unconventional Fuels Task Force is taking serious looks at developing the country’s 800 billion barrels of recoverable reserves from these deposits. But while there may be another revival afoot in Green River, it’s the resources’ similarity to the richness, accessibility, production assurance and product quality of Alberta’s oilsands that’s driving new interest.

“We’ve recommended that we use the Alberta model as a template,” gushes Anton Dammer, Director of the Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves for the U.S. Department of Energy. “Just as a matter of course we use the Alberta model a lot down here. What Alberta has done is truly remarkable. It’s just tremendous to look at and has a number of similarities to our resource.”

Including some aspects that even give shale an edge over oilsands. Such as higher area energy density of the oil. According to the Oil & Gas Journal, measured on a per-acre yield, about 700 billion barrels of shale oil in the U.S. occurs in concentrations much richer than Alberta oilsands oil – 1.3 million barrels per acre compared to oilsands’ average of about 100,000. Higher yields can be expected for oil shale, too: 0.73 barrels per ton versus 0.53 for oilsands.

Lessons from the Great White North

Indeed, with the concerted national swing away from dependence on imported fuels, oil shale could be the U.S.’s rising star even if commercial production is still years away. Lessons learned from Alberta’s oilsands experience, though, will be critical.

For starters, there’s the perseverance required to kick-start the industry – first-generation facilities are technologically and economically the most difficult; just ask the early Great Canadian Oilsands and AOSTRA research.

Further, much like in the sands, there are two approaches to harvesting oil from shale: mining and in situ.

The mining method is followed by surface retorting to separate the oil from the shale. Previous projects have involved surface retorting – or heating (see sidebar.) But perhaps the most promising retort technology right now is the Alberta Taciuk process, originally developed by Calgary-based engineer Bill Taciuk for AOSTRA and subsequently piloted elsewhere in the world. In 2005, Taciuk’s group wrapped up a 6000-ton-per-day test facility in Australia, producing 1.6 million barrels over a five-year project before sponsor Southern Pacific Petroleum in that country ran into financial difficulties and was absorbed into a U.S.-based venture capital fund. The Taciuk Process is also poised to be deployed in China, where Taciuk’s company, UMATAC Industrial Processes, is designing another 6000-ton-per-day facility scheduled for operation in 2008. Testing work is also being done in the U.S.

“It’s in the process of becoming commercial,” says Taciuk, adding his process will produce anywhere from 0.4 barrels to about 1 barrel of oil per ton. “We’re certainly in the advanced stages of development.”

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