What Is Shale Oil and Why Is It Damaging to the Environment?

Many oil researchers and analysts believe that humanity has reached the point at which we register a decline in the amount of conventional oil available across the world. Peak oil is possible since oil is a nonrenewable resource. In spite of the limited supply we’re facing, some disagree on the fact that we’ve reached peak oil yet. But even if that event is still a century or not, it’s worth turning to alternative oils, such as shale oil, to meet our needs.

A few hopeful researchers claim that new oil technology will become prolific before humanity runs out of oil completely. However, we have become increasingly dependent on petroleum-powered technology, such as the gas that runs our cars and various pharmaceuticals. It wouldn’t hurt to investigate more unconventional sources of crude oil, and one of the more promising reserves of oil that we haven’t yet exploited commercially is oil shale.

What is Shale Oil?

Essentially, it is oil trapped in solid form inside various rock formations. Shale oil is one of the unconventional oils; it is produced from oil shale rock fragments by hydrogenation, pyrolysis, or thermal dissolution. Through these processes, we take the organic matter within the rock (kerogen) and convert into synthetic oil and gas.

The oil resulting from this processing can either be used immediately as a fuel or processed some more to meet refinery feedstock specifications. To do that, hydrogen must be added and impurities like sulfur and nitrogen removed. We use the refined products for the same purposes as those produced from crude oil.

Shale Oil Extraction

Before we can talk about the environmental impact of shale oil, we have to become familiar with the process of oil shale. In many aspects, it is much more complicated than extracting liquid crude oil from the ground.

With crude oil, the pressure present in the oil chambers simply forces the crude oil to the surface. After alleviating this pressure, the oil drilling phases begin. Loosening compressed oil may sometimes require pumped water. In many cases, the remaining oil underground is simply left for more advanced equipment that will make future drilling possible.

On the other hand, extracting crude oil from rock is much more difficult. Oil shale is mined with the help of underground- or surface-mining methods. After the excavation phase, the oil shale must undergo retorting. This process involves exposure to pyrolysis – producing a chemical change to a substance by applying extreme heat.

Between 650 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the kerogen – the fossil fuel within the rock – starts to liquefy and separate from its surroundings. The oil-like substance that results can be further refined into a synthetic crude oil.

Eco-impact of Shale Oil

Oil shale is usually combustible in its raw state which makes it an ideal candidate for direct combustion fuels. But how harmful is the shale oil industry to the environment? To assess this matter, we must look at issues such as land use, water and air pollution, and waste management.

The extraction of oil shale through surface mining causes the general eco-impacts of open-pit mining. Meanwhile, the thermal processing generate harmful atmospheric emissions (such as carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas). It also results in combustion waste material, which requires proper disposal.

Carbon capture, experimental in-situ conversion processes, and new storage technologies may help alleviate some of these concerns in future. However, others may raise, including the increasing problem we’re facing with the pollution of groundwater.

Shale Oil & Greenhouse Gases

So far, studies suggest that extracting oil shale en masse would have adverse effects on air, water, and land (at the extraction sites). For example, the distillation process releases toxic pollutants into the air, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead.

According to existing analysis, current oil shale research projects would reduce visibility by over 10 percent for several consecutive weeks a year. And the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that when it comes down to it, extracting and processing oil shale emits almost double the greenhouse gas (GHG) generated by conventional crude. Most of these gases occur during production. Producing 100,000 barrels of oil shale per day sends around 10 million tons of GHGs in the atmosphere.

In light of current obstacles, shale oil has yet to be commercially produced on a large scale. In simple words, shale oil is currently more environmentally harmful and expensive than conventional drilling. But as the prospect of a limited supply of crude oil glooms over us – and the price of petroleum rises – oil shale will become increasingly attractive.

Geopolitical Consequences of Shale Oil

Back in the 1970s, the Jimmy Carter administration responded to a major oil crisis by federally funding the shale oil research. But when the oil prices dropped again, the interest in alternative supplies started waning. Seeing that oil prices are higher each year, oil shale is becoming attractive once more.

This is especially true for the United States, home of the largest oil shale reserve in the world. It covers the western part of the country, in parts of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The Green River Formation, as it is called, contains a 17,000-square-mile deposit. If we can eventually produce crude oil from oil shale en masse, the U.S. could become the leader in alternative oil reserves.

According to estimates, the reserves found in the Green River Formation could produce around 1.5 to 1.8 trillion barrels of crude oil. If it sounds impressive, it’s because it is. This amount is about three times more than the oil reserves found in Saudi Arabia. If we find a way to tap into it, this reserve could meet the United States’ current oil demands for more than 400 years.

There’s no doubt that there are plenty of disadvantages when it comes to extracting and processing shale oil. If you’re interesting in reading a more thorough research on all the things that could go wrong if we pursue shale oil extraction on a large scale, see this article. But with more advanced technologies, there’s hope for humanity to break away from its dependency of fossil fuels.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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