This is interesting but, as you'll see, not really a game changer.
The Green River Formation, a largely vacant area of mostly federal land that covers the territory where Colorado, Utah and Wyoming come together, contains about as much recoverable oil as all the rest the world's proven reserves combined, an auditor from the Government Accountability Office told Congress on Thursday.
The GAO testimony said that the federal government was in "a unique position to influence the development of oil shale" because the Green River deposits were mostly beneath federal land.
It also noted that developing the oil would have an environmental impact and pose "socioeconomic challenges," that included bringing "a sizable influx of workers who along with their families put additional stress on local infrastructure" and "making planning for growth difficult for local governments."
"The Green River Formation--an assemblage of over 1,000 feet of sedimentary rocks that lie beneath parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming--contains the world's largest deposits of oil shale,"Anu K. Mittal, the GAO's director of natural resources and environment said in written testimony submitted to the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.
"USGS estimates that the Green River Formation contains about 3 trillion barrels of oil, and about half of this may be recoverable, depending on available technology and economic conditions," Mittal testified.
"The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, estimates that 30 to 60 percent of the oil shale in the Green River Formation can be recovered," Mittal told the subcommittee. "At the midpoint of this estimate, almost half of the 3 trillion barrels of oil would be recoverable. This is an amount about equal to the entire world's proven oil reserves."
While it is true that the shale oil is "recoverable," the cost of extracting the oil from the shale would make any large scale operations prohibitively expensive at this time. It takes a tremendous amount of heat and pressure to recover the oil from shale - extractors would expend almost as much energy removing the oil, refining it, and bringing it to market than the oil itself would generate.
We have the same problem with solar energy. Until recently, the energy expended to manufacture one photovoltaic cell exceeded the amount of energy that cell would generate in its entire lifetime. We've since passed that threshold, but it points up the problems with "alternative" energy.
The cost of infrastructure in that area alone would make recovery too expensive. Massive amounts of water would have to be diverted to supply workers and the mining operations in a part of the country already hurting water-wise because of overbuilding. And, given the nature of oil shale operations, the EPA would have a lot to say about how companies would go about recovering the oil.
At $150 bbl for oil, extraction might make sense. But until we can find a more efficient way to extract the oil from the shale, those reserves will probably not be tapped to help us gain energy independence.