Sabbie Oleose


Punti reazioni
Ad Alberta in canada stanno trasformando sabbie bituminose in light crude a prezzi competitivi. Le riserve stimate ed estraibili dalle tecnologie attuali sono seconde soltanto ai giacimenti dell'arabia saudita, ma pare siano molto maggiori. Le società che lavorano in questo sett sono Syncrude canada LTD e Suncor energy.

Ecco un articolo dello scorso anno;)
The Oil Sands Of Alberta

Jan. 22, 2005
(CBS) There’s an oil boom going on right now. Not in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or any of those places, but 600 miles north of Montana.

In Alberta, Canada, in a town called Fort McMurray where, this time of year, the temperature sometimes zooms up to zero.

The oilmen up there aren’t digging holes in the sand and hoping for a spout. They’re digging up dirt — dirt that is saturated with oil. They’re called oil sands, and if you’ve never heard of them then you’re in for a big surprise because the reserves are so vast in the province of Alberta that they will help solve America’s energy needs for the next century.

Within a few years, the oil sands are likely to become more important to the United States than all the oil that comes to us from Saudi Arabia.

Correspondent Bob Simon reports.


Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, vehicles that look like prehistoric beasts move across an arctic wasteland, extracting the oil sands. There is so much to scoop, so much money to be made.

There are 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves here. That’s second to Saudi Arabia’s 260 billion but it’s only what companies can get with today’s technology. The estimate of how many more barrels of oil are buried deeper underground is staggering.

"We know there’s much, much more there. The total estimates could be two trillion or even higher," says Clive Mather, Shell's Canada chief. "This is a very, very big resource."

Very big? That’s eight times the amount of reserves in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands are buried under forests in Alberta that are the size of Florida. The oil here doesn’t come gushing out of the sand the way it does in the Middle East. The oil is in the sand. It has to be dug up and processed.

Rick George, the Colorado-born CEO of Suncor Energy, took 60 Minutes into his strip mine for a tour. He says the mine will be in operation for about 25 years.

The oil sands look like a very rich, pliable kind of topsoil. Why doesn’t oil come out when squeezed?

"Well, because it’s not warm enough. If you add this to hot water you’ll start the separation process and you’ll see the oil come to the top of the water and you’ll see sand drop to the bottom," George says.

It may look like topsoil but all it grows is money.

It didn’t always. The oil sands have been in the ground for millions of years, but for decades, prospectors lost millions of dollars trying to squeeze the oil out of the sand. It simply cost too much.

T. Boone Pickens, a legendary Texas oil tycoon, was working Alberta’s traditional oil rigs back in the '60s and remembers how he and his colleagues thought mining for oil sands was a joke.

"Here we are sitting there having a drink after work and somebody said this isn’t going to, it isn’t possible. It’ll all have to be subsidized to a level, said, before they’d make money you’d have to have $5 oil," Pickens says laughing. "We never thought it would happen."

But then $40 a barrel happened and the oil sands not only made sense, they made billions for the people digging them. But it wasn’t just the price of oil that changed the landscape, it was the toys. That’s what they call the giant trucks and shovels that roam the mines.

Everything about the oil industry has always been big. It’s characterized by bigness, from the pumps to the personalities. But up here in Alberta, it’s frankly ridiculous. The mine operates the world's biggest truck. It’s three stories high and costs $5 million. It carries a load of 400 tons of oil sands, which means, at today’s oil prices, each load is worth $10,000 dollars.

What it’s like to drive one of these monsters? At the foot of a tire, we asked the driver, Jim Locke.

"You have 14 steps going up, and at my house you have 14 steps to the bedroom. So it’s like going upstairs in my house, sitting on my bed and driving the house downtown," says Locke.

But getting downtown is just the beginning. The oil sands then go into a plant. They’re heated in a cell, which separates the oil from the sand. The result looks like something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This oil froth is then sent to an upgrader and eventually to a refinery.

Asked if the processed oil is as good as that pumped in Saudi Arabia, Mather says, "Absolutely as good as. In fact, it even trades as a, at a premium because it’s high quality crude oil."

The capital of the oil sands frenzy is a frontier town called Fort McMurray, which isn’t in the middle of nowhere. It’s north of nowhere and colder than the Klondike, but a boomtown just the same. The local hockey team is called the "Oil Barons." They’re on a winning streak.

Is this comparable to a gold rush?

"I think it’s bigger than a gold rush. We’re expecting $100 billion over the next 10 years to be invested in this area — $100 billion in a population that, currently, is 70,000 people," says Brian Jean, who represents the region in Canada’s parliament.

Pickens is one of those investors. He runs a hedge fund in Dallas and is now a true believer.

"We’re managing $5 billion here. And, about 10 percent of it is in the oil sands. So, it’s the largest single investment we have," Pickens says.

And if oil sands are the answer for investors, does Pickens think the oil sands are the answer for the United States?

"Oh, I think so," he says.

Most of those lumbering trucks are on their way to the gas tanks of America. A million barrels a day are now coming out of the oil sands and oil production is expected to triple within a decade. It won’t replace Middle Eastern oil but at that point it will be the single largest source of foreign oil for the United States, even bigger than Saudi Arabia, which sends a million and a half barrels a day to America.

Greg Stringham, who works for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says surprisingly, that Washington has only been paying attention for the "last couple of years."

Stringham often lobbies for the oil sands in Washington. He says that in Alberta you don’t have to look for the oil sands — the earth moves.

"When it comes to exploration in the oil sands, you can’t drill a dry hole. It’s there," he says. "We know where it is. They’ve outlined it. You don’t have any risk. But other conventional sectors around the world, there’s a huge exploration risk."

The exploration risks are the least of it. Much of the world’s crude is in the Middle East where the instability is deeper than the oil. When Alberta’s blue-eyed sheiks took to Wall Street last summer in their Stetsons to drum up support for the oil sands, their message seemed to be, "If you can’t trust Alberta, who can you trust?"

"Alberta is a very good place to do business. It’s a very stable environment," says Mather.

The bonus for Canadians, aside from the treasure, is the notion that Americans might have to start treating them with a little less condescension.

"With their oil, I think we’re going to need them a lot more than they need us," says Pickens.

"We may appear in Canada to be a mouse compared to the elephant down south in terms of diplomacy or politics. But in terms of resources, we are mighty equals," says Mather.

There have been grumblings out of Ottawa that Canada should consider using the oil sands as leverage in its serious trade disputes with the United States.

Does Brian Jean think America is taking Canada for granted on the oil sands?

"Absolutely. And I think most people, most Canadians believe that," he says.

And the Canadians have alternatives. The Chinese, for example, are just dying to get a piece of the sandbox.

"I’ve been contacted personally by Chinese delegates that want to get into the plant sites here and want to see and want to invest," says Jean.

Asked what he thinks about the Chinese interest in the oil sands up in Alberta, Pickens says, "At first I thought they were tire kickers. But I think they’re serious buyers."

And the millions of Chinese who have moved from their bicycles to traffic jams are driving up the demand for oil. It’s virtually insatiable and the Canadians want to step up production quickly. What’s holding them back is labor — the shortage of it.

Brian Jean says another 100,000 people are needed in Fort McMurray.

That’s why one oil company has built a runway to fly workers daily from civilization to Fort McMurray. But why would anyone want to come work in a place where temperatures plummet to 40 below and the sun sets shortly after it rises in the long winter? Well, perhaps because the oil companies pay some of the highest salaries in North America.

Take Josh Lichti, who says he could be making $120,000 by the time he is 22.

"It’s amazing," he says.

But even if workers come flocking, the oil companies still have other problems. Creating energy from oil sands requires so much energy that the oil companies wind up spiking greenhouse gas emissions.

"And they do it in volumes that exceed any other production of oil crude anywhere on the planet," says Elizabeth May, the director of the Sierra Club of Canada.

She takes issue not only with what the oil sands are doing to the atmosphere, but to the land. The oil companies, environmentalists say, are digging up an entire province. Take a helicopter ride over the mines and you’ll think you’re flying over the moon after a moonquake.

"One of the reasons they can be mined the way they’ve been mined is the out of sight, out of mind aspect of it. And your film crew is one of the few that’s gone in there to look at how devastating this is," May says.

Even money men like Pickens have noticed. "Can’t argue with it. I mean, there’s no question that, that they’ve got a mess up there. But I do think they’ll take care of it over time," he says.

The oil companies say they will reduce greenhouse gasses and they point out they are required by Canadian law to refill old mines and plant new trees, and that is happening — slowly. One company, Syncrude, has even introduced bison to land that once was a barren pit.

Rick George of Suncor Energy insists in the future people won’t recognize the mines. "So what you see today is a mine. What you’ll see 10 years from now is a replanted forest," he says.

"You’re telling me that if I come here, it’s gonna be pretty?" Simon asks.

"Absolutely," George says. "These sites will all be going back. Now we’ll be minin’ at a different location at that point.

"This will look forested when we get done with it in 20 years time."

But there is a larger question that not only environmentalists are asking: will the availability of an enormous supply of secure oil right next door mean America will have little incentive to reduce its dependence on oil?

"What Canada’s doing," says May, "is continuing to feed the U.S. addiction to fossil fuels, instead of being the kinda friend who says, 'Let’s make a helpful intervention here.' We're acting as the supplier of a drug fix to the U.S., while all the time saying, 'Just say no.' But we keep selling it."

But unless the Chinese go back to bicycles and Americans trash their SUVs, there will be buyers — for oil anywhere, no matter how it’s found or mined. Right now, Canada has become the land of opportunity for oilmen. They will tell you there is little else on the horizon.

"Bob, if you take a tablet and put on it where is supply gonna come from that we don’t know about today. And you put down all the optimistic points, that tablet will basically be blank," says Pickens.

As blank as the landscape around Fort McMurray, where the world of oil exploration ends.

Does Pickens think the days of cheap oil are gone?

"They’re gone," he says. "From what we knew as cheap oil, when I pumped gasoline in Ray Smith’s Sinclair station on Hinkley Street in Holdenvale, Oklahoma, 11 cents a gallon, that’s gone."

Will we ever again see $1.50 a gallon? "We won’t ever see $1.50 a gallon. No, that’s gone," says Pickens.

Right around the corner from Fort McMurray you can still see oil being produced the traditional way. It’s picturesque now. The wells are still pumping but they belong to the past, like the iron horse that once rode across these prairies.

The future? Up here in Alberta they’re convinced it’s in the dirt.
giugno 2004
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You can get a glimpse of it just north of Fort McMurray, a former fur-trading outpost in the Canadian province of Alberta. Just where the highway crosses the Athabasca River, veins of black, tarry sand streak the riverbanks. On a hot day tar sand is sticky and smells like fresh asphalt—the smell of money the locals call it. No wonder they're smug. The tar-sand deposits here and elsewhere in Alberta hold the equivalent of more than 1.6 trillion barrels of oil—an amount that may exceed the world's remaining reserves of ordinary crude. But this is no ordinary crude. In fact, it's a residue created when conventional oil escaped from its birthplace deep in the Earth's crust and was degraded into tar by groundwater and bacteria.

Most of the tar sand lies too deep or in deposits too sparse to be exploited. But oil-sand companies got a boost in the 1990s as technology improved and Canada cut the first few years of the royalties that companies were required to pay. The Alberta government reckons that 174 billion barrels could now be tapped economically. Last year the U.S. Department of Energy agreed and included that number in Canada's proven reserves. The move catapulted Canada to second place in the ranking of oil-rich states, right behind Saudi Arabia—and ahead of Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.

But standing at the edge of a 200-foot-deep (60-meter-deep) pit where giant electric- and diesel-powered shovels devour beds of oil sand, Shell Canada Senior Vice President Neil Camarta acknowledges that there's a big difference between the oil-sand riches and free-flowing crude. "It's not like the oil in Saudi Arabia. You see all the work we have to do; it doesn't just jump out of the ground." Shell's is one of three big operations that together wring more than 600,000 barrels of oil a day from the Athabasca sands. Every step of the way takes brute force.

The sand has to be strip-mined, two tons of it for each barrel of oil. Dump trucks the size of mini-mansions haul 400 tons in a single load, in beds heated during the subarctic winters so the sand doesn't freeze into a giant blob. Next to the mine, the sand goes into the equivalent of giant washing machines, where torrents of warm water and solvent rinse out the tar, or bitumen, leaving wet sand that is dumped in tailing ponds.

Even then the bitumen is not ready to be piped off to a refinery like ordinary crude. To turn it back into crude oil, the operations either cook it in cokers, where temperatures of 900°F (500°C) break up the giant tar molecules, or heat it to lower temperatures and churn it with hydrogen gas and a catalyst. The result is a clean, low-sulfur crude—"beautiful stuff," says Camarta.

But producing it is not so pretty, he acknowledges. "This really is a big, big project," Camarta says of Shell's four-billion-dollar mine and plant, which opened last year. "It has a big footprint too, and we don't hide that—a big environmental and a big social imprint."

Other oil-sand operations have left the land north of Fort McMurray pocked with mines and lakes of sludgy gray tailings. So far less than 20 percent of the disturbed land has been restored to grassland and forest. Dust, diesel exhaust, and sulfurous fumes pollute the air. It takes three barrels of water to extract each barrel of bitumen, and although the plants are careful to recycle water, they still draw heavily on the Athabasca River. Heating all that water takes vast amounts of natural gas. Worried about Canada's dwindling natural gas supplies, Alberta has even considered someday building a nuclear reactor smack in the tar-sands region to supply power and steam.

The local First Nations people—Canada's Native Americans—mourn the loss of once pristine land. In the village of Fort McKay seven miles from Shell's mine, the company paid to build a community center on the poplar-clad banks of the Athabasca. Seated by a soaring fireplace bearing a Shell plaque, Chief Jim Boucher, president of the Athabasca Tribal Council, acknowledges that development has brought jobs and money. But the chief, who grew up trapping mink, muskrat, and beaver in intact forest, says: "In people's minds, what's going on is too much. We're losing too much of our land. The amount of destruction, especially in the minds of the elders, is horrendous."

Unless oil prices collapse, the destruction is likely to continue. With tar-sand production costs down to about ten dollars a barrel, the operations expect to make a handsome profit. Existing mines are expanding, and more companies are jumping in. Some are starting to exploit tar sands too deep to be mined, by forcing high-pressure steam down wells to melt out the bitumen. Production could reach two million barrels a day in a decade, according to the Alberta government.
queate sabbie potranno essere competitive solo se il greggio arriva a 80 dollari,per il momento rappresentano un giacimento buono solo se scatta la famosa crisi petrolifera le sabbie l' etanolo il bio carburante sale solo se c'è crisi ,il canada ha un grande cultura ambientale ,queste industrie producono molta co2 occchhhhio
scozia ha scritto:
queate sabbie potranno essere competitive solo se il greggio arriva a 80 dollari,per il momento rappresentano un giacimento buono solo se scatta la famosa crisi petrolifera le sabbie l' etanolo il bio carburante sale solo se c'è crisi ,il canada ha un grande cultura ambientale ,queste industrie producono molta co2 occchhhhio
il costo di traformazione in crudo light per il momento è arrivato a 13$;)
scozia ha scritto:
queate sabbie potranno essere competitive solo se il greggio arriva a 80 dollari,per il momento rappresentano un giacimento buono solo se scatta la famosa crisi petrolifera le sabbie l' etanolo il bio carburante sale solo se c'è crisi ,il canada ha un grande cultura ambientale ,queste industrie producono molta co2 occchhhhio

Ma che stai addì!
Gli USA importano più prodotti derivati dal petrolio dal Canada (Alberta) che non dall'Arabia Saudita.In questo modo cercano di pararsi il c..
Il prezzo di sola estrazione e lavorazione (è un lavoro incredibile) costa 20 US $ al barile contro i circa 2 dollari dell'Arabia.
Shell è in prima linea nello sfruttamento dei gaicimenti dell'Alberta, ma anche Eni recentemente "ha fatto un giro" da quelle parti.
Dopo il Canada, il Venezuela è il secondo paese con giacimenti enormi di oil sand.
per coho ,non sono mie valutazione ma quelle di scaroni durante il tg2 dossier sulla crisi iran usa dedicato allo scenario futuro del prezzo del petrolio (io personalmente sono per l' idrogeno solare eolico ).ciao
c'è un articolo su B&Finanza. Gli Usa avrebbero le più grandi risorse di petrolio mondiali estraibili dallo scisto in alaska e nelle montagne rocciose. Quasi il doppio dei paesi arabi. Attualmente i costi di sfruttamento sarebbero attorno ai 30$
articolo del 2005
Seebach: Shell's ingenious approach to oil shale is pretty slick
Email this story | Print
Linda Seebach
email | bioSeptember 2, 2005
When oil prices last touched record highs - actually, after adjusting for inflation we're not there yet, but given the effects of Hurricane Katrina, we probably will be soon - politicians' response was more hype than hope. Oil shale in Colorado! Tar sands in Alberta! OPEC be damned!
Remember the Carter-era Synfuels Corp. debacle? It was a response to the '70s energy shortages, closed down in 1985 after accomplishing essentially nothing at great expense, which is pretty much a description of what usually happens when the government tries to take over something that the private sector can do better. Private actors are, after all, spending their own money.

Since 1981, Shell researchers at the company's division of "unconventional resources" have been spending their own money trying to figure out how to get usable energy out of oil shale. Judging by the presentation the Rocky Mountain News heard this week, they think they've got it.

Shell's method, which it calls "in situ conversion," is simplicity itself in concept but exquisitely ingenious in execution. Terry O'Connor, a vice president for external and regulatory affairs at Shell Exploration and Production, explained how it's done (and they have done it, in several test projects):

Drill shafts into the oil-bearing rock. Drop heaters down the shaft. Cook the rock until the hydrocarbons boil off, the lightest and most desirable first. Collect them.

Please note, you don't have to go looking for oil fields when you're brewing your own.

On one small test plot about 20 feet by 35 feet, on land Shell owns, they started heating the rock in early 2004. "Product" - about one-third natural gas, two-thirds light crude - began to appear in September 2004. They turned the heaters off about a month ago, after harvesting about 1,500 barrels of oil.

While we were trying to do the math, O'Connor told us the answers. Upwards of a million barrels an acre, a billion barrels a square mile. And the oil shale formation in the Green River Basin, most of which is in Colorado, covers more than a thousand square miles - the largest fossil fuel deposits in the world.


They don't need subsidies; the process should be commercially feasible with world oil prices at $30 a barrel. The energy balance is favorable; under a conservative life-cycle analysis, it should yield 3.5 units of energy for every 1 unit used in production. The process recovers about 10 times as much oil as mining the rock and crushing and cooking it at the surface, and it's a more desirable grade. Reclamation is easier because the only thing that comes to the surface is the oil you want.

And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.

But ice is impermeable to water. So around the perimeter of the productive site, you drill lots more shafts, only 8 to 12 feet apart, put in piping, and pump refrigerants through it. The water in the ground around the shafts freezes, and eventually forms a 20- to 30-foot ice barrier around the site.

Next you take the water out of the ground inside the ice wall, turn up the heat, and then sit back and harvest the oil until it stops coming in useful quantities. When production drops, it falls off rather quickly.

That's an advantage over ordinary wells, which very gradually get less productive as they age.

Then you pump the water back in. (Well, not necessarily the same water, which has moved on to other uses.) It's hot down there so the water flashes into steam, picking up loose chemicals in the process. Collect the steam, strip the gunk out of it, repeat until the water comes out clean. Then you can turn off the heaters and the chillers and move on to the next plot (even saving one or two of the sides of the ice wall, if you want to be thrifty about it).

Most of the best territory for this astonishing process is on land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. Shell has applied for a research and development lease on 160 acres of BLM land, which could be approved by February. That project would be on a large enough scale so design of a commercial facility could begin.

The 2005 energy bill altered some provisions of the 1920 Minerals Leasing Act that were a deterrent to large-scale development, and also laid out a 30-month timetable for establishing federal regulations governing commercial leasing.

Shell has been deliberately low-key about their R&D, wanting to avoid the hype, and the disappointment, that surrounded the last oil-shale boom. But O'Connor said the results have been sufficiently encouraging they are gradually getting more open. Starting next week, they will be holding public hearings in northwest Colorado.

I'll say it again. Wow.
Squeezing Oil Out of Stones in the Rocky Mountains
by Scott Horsley

Enlarge Scott Horsley, NPR
Oil shale entrepreneur Byron Merrell built this six-story "retort" near Vernal, Utah, to extract oil from shale. His dog Smith guards the site.

Morning Edition, May 23, 2006 · The high cost of crude oil has many people looking for new sources of energy -- and taking a second look at some old ideas. Oil shale is an idea that was tested a generation ago, then abandoned when the price of crude oil plunged. Now, a self-taught inventor is once again eyeing the vast shale deposits of the Rocky Mountains.

Byron Merrell steers his Chevy pickup along Highway 40 in eastern Utah, past the fiberglass dinosaurs that welcome tourists from the nearby national monument. Just outside the city of Vernal, he turns onto the "Bonanza Highway."

The highway is a remnant of the bonanza that was expected here a quarter-century ago. Back then, the nation was in the grips of another Iran-related oil crisis, and to many, this highway through the Utah desert seemed like the road to energy security.

"It was built by the county in the early '80s and late '70s, primarily for oil shale," Merill says. "And then when oil prices dropped to $9 or $10 a barrel, everyone folded their tent and left. It was kind of a dark day out here when all the jobs disappeared."

Exxon's announcement that it was closing its oil shale project in 1982 is still referred to as "Black Sunday." It was about that time, just when everyone else was getting out of oil shale, that Byron Merrell started getting in.

"I haven't bought very much stock in my life. But I know when stocks go down, that's the time to buy," he says.

Merrell spent five years "mentally" designing an oil shale "retort," in which pulverized rock is baked, and vaporized oil extracted. He built his first prototype in 1993, buying shale from an abandoned mine to experiment with. Getting oil out of the rocks is not the problem. Any junior-high school kid can do that with a Bunsen burner.

"Every retort that's ever been built has made oil. To make it economically is another trick," Merrell says.

And that's the trick that, so far, has eluded almost everyone who's tried. If the price of oil stays high enough, if the retorting process can be made cheap enough, and if environmental concerns can be satisfied, there's a lot of oil to be had here.

More Oil Than Saudi Arabia

A study by the Rand Corporation estimates the sedimentary rock in the corner where Utah borders Colorado and Wyoming holds about 800 billion barrels. That's three times the size of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves.

"If the planets line up right and everyone supports it, this could be the oil capital of the world. Because there's enough to last us for a long, long time," Merrell says. "This is the most exciting entrepreneurial adventure in the nation right now."

Merrell's retort is located about 35 miles outside of Vernal, right next to a pipeline that carries oil into Salt Lake City. The retort used to be guarded by two dogs: Smith and Wesson. Wesson ran off, though, so Smith greets us by himself.

We walk on gravel made of ground-up oil shale, then climb an erector-set staircase, six stories into the Utah sky. Crushed oil shale is dumped into the top of the retort, then heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit on its way down, until the organic material inside is vaporized. It takes about a ton of rock to produce a barrel of oil. When it's operating, this handmade prototype can make 24 barrels a day.

Investor Romit Bhattacharya was so impressed with Merrell's work, he joined the company last year as CEO, while Merrell took the title of chief technology officer. Bhattacharya says the next step is to build a commercial-scale retort, more than 40 times the size of this one, and capable of churning out 1,000 barrels of oil a day.

"People still want to say, 'Show me. Show me you can sell the product.' And I think the first thousand barrels a day will get us to that commercial validation in the eyes of the business community," Bhattacharya says.

Dreaming of Bonanza

Bhattacharya figures the company can produce oil for about $33 a barrel in the early days, and that, over time, production costs will fall to less than $20 a barrel.

That seems like a bargain at today's prices, but for most of the last two decades, when conventional oil was cheap, no one wanted to talk about oil shale. Byron Merrell once went two years without a paycheck, while his wife -- a school secretary -- supported their family. It was a lonely road at times. But Merrell says he never thought of giving up.

"An entrepreneur works a lot like an artist," Merrell says. "They say that a sculptor can see the finished product inside the rock before he starts chipping away. And an artist that's painting with oils can see the finished picture before they start mixing the paint. And I think all entrepreneurs are that way. They can see the end. But sometimes getting to the end doesn't have paydays for a long time."

Paydays seem closer now. Big oil companies like ExxonMobil and Shell are showing renewed interest in oil shale -- although they're testing a different process that bakes the rock while it is still underground. And Utah's governor signed a bill this spring with tax incentives to encourage the oil shale industry.

Environmental Concerns

All of that worries environmentalists, who fear that mining and baking thousands of tons of shale would pollute the air, tax the water supply and destroy the fragile Western terrain.

"It leaves huge, lasting scars, and eastern Utah, western Colorado is a landscape that heals very slowly from that type of damage," says Stephen Block, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Merrell counters that his retort is designed to minimize water use and air pollution.

But driving back to Vernal, Merrell admits he shares one concern with the environmentalists: If oil shale takes off in Utah, this part of the country will see substantial growth. Having grown up in the area, and having enjoyed its wide open spaces, Merrell is not entirely happy about that.

"There's going to need to be new schools and new businesses," Merrell says. "The county probably has 25,000 people now. If that was to jump to 50,000 or 100,000, I hope the community will forgive me."

Still, Merrell says if somebody's going to develop the resource, it might as well be him. And if the sculpture he's imagined actually takes shape from tons of oil shale, bonanza will be much more than the name of a highway through a lonely Utah desert.
Vernal company set to exploit oil shale

By Joe Bauman
Deseret Morning News
For the past 30 years, the mantra about oil shale has been that as soon as crude rises above (choose your amount), it would become economical to extract oil from the greasy rock deposits that abound in eastern Utah.
Byron G. Merrell.Shale retort designed by Byron Merrell may extract oil cheaply. Then Utah would be the Saudi Arabia of oil shale, continued the prediction.
During the 1973-74 OPEC embargo, oil jumped to above $5 a barrel, not high enough for oil shale. It soared again during the Iran-Iraq war to just under $40, according to Department of Energy figures — still a tad too low, considering the expected start-up costs.
Today, the American Petroleum Institute reports that world crude oil has reached the dizzying height of $54 a barrel — rocketing $12 since the first of the year.
Now's the time to extract shale oil, says Oil Tech, a new company based in Vernal that has built an 80-foot prototype retort near Bonanza, Uintah County.
Backers say the project can produce oil at $10 to $20 a barrel and that it uses a revolutionary system aimed not at competing with OPEC but with domestic oil producers.
The system was designed by Byron G. Merrell, a former Uintah County commissioner who is project manager for Oil Tech. He worked on the system for 15 years.
"When I started on the design of it, I knew that the competition for oil shale always had to be domestic drilling rigs," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Vernal.
"To drill for oil in the Rocky Mountain region is about a million dollars to get a hole in the ground." Then the cost is about $1 million more for pumps, casings and putting the well into production.
Additional costs in the Uintah Basin can include the expense of flooding to float oil from depleting fields and other types of secondary recovery systems, he said. Merrell calculated those costs and tried to design an oil shale retort that would be less expensive, resulting in oil priced lower than from a well, he said.
In the past, companies spent up to $400 million on an oil shale retort, according to Merrell. "Our unit will cost in the $2 million range and it will do 1,000 barrels per day."
The retort is modular, five sections stacked "like a child's building blocks," Merrell said. "It's a vertical, gravity-flow system," and the design can be mass-produced, he added.
It is hollow in the center, where electricity heats the shale. Heating a cubic yard of rock to the required 1,000 degrees uses about $7 worth of electricity.
According to Merrell, the organic material in the rock is compacted algae dating back 55 million years to 85 million years. At high temperatures it volatilities.
In the retort, this smoke of vaporized hydrocarbons "condenses to a kerogen type oil, an oil shale." A cleaning process removes impurities like dust, and it's ready to market. The prototype retort is within feet of a pipeline to a Salt Lake area refinery.
"I was very skeptical," said Jack Savage, a Payson resident who was once president of companies that manufactured sporting goods like golf bags. But after he learned about the profess, he invited a chemical engineer to check the process. His friend examined the proposal, declared it elegantly simple, and wondered why he had not thought of it himself.
Savage and Merrell teamed up in 2000 to form Oil Tech and raise money for the project. Savage, the presiden of the firm, said they came up with nearly $2.5 million and built the demonstration retort.
"We just run it periodically," showing government officials and potential customers what it could do with a large enough supply of shale.
The retort is a test model but vertically, it's full size. To increase capacity as a commercial venture, they would increase the diameter. It should be able to process 1,000 tons of rock per day — and someday it could reach 20,000 tons, he said.
"On average, there's about a barrel of oil per ton of rock," Savage said. (A barrel is 42 gallons.)
Eventually, the project will reuse the spent rock. Shale leaves the retort at about 1,000 degrees, Savage added. "We will just blow air into it and actually combust it to reach temperatures of about 2,500 degrees."
That will heat the incoming shale, rather than using electricity. Once the hydrocarbons and fixed carbons are driven off, the byproduct is a light ash that can be mixed with topsoil and spread to revegetate an area, he added.
Initial cost is about $20 a barrel of oil. Once an underground mine is developed, where long-wall equipment can dig out shale to the tune of 20,000 tons a day, "then our overall cost drops to around $10 per barrel."
An independent engineering company from Montana evaluated the site and compared it with Oil Tech's data, "and essentially validated our representations," Savage said. Costs and efficiencies involved mean they should be able to scale up to 1,000 per day production per unit, he said.
"At this point we are ready to go into full operation."
But there's a hang-up.
The company would like help from the state in dealing with the federal government, to ensure a long-term supply of shale. If that happens, "we will be ready by the end of the year to go into commercial production of about 1,000 barrels per day."
Savage said the process is friendly to the environment. The company would operate in a desolate area dotted with gas and oil wells, with pipelines on top of the ground and deep open trenches were veins of minerals were mined.
"We are actually going to be probably the most environ- mentally friendly operation out there," he said.
Russ Fotheringham, a supporter of the project, said not enough shale is available to run the retort continuously. For that, a mine is needed.