Thursday, October 09, 2008

Oil Shale

Since it looks like oil shale is in the news again I might as well tell my oil shale story.

In case you have missed this one, out west, actually mostly on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies and going over into Utah there is a lot of what is called oil shale. It’s actually a formation of shale that’s heavy with oil.

Not the sort of oil that you see in the movies. You know, somewhere in Oklahoma or Texas where the wildcatter drives well pipe down in the ground And suddenly strikes a huge pool of liquid oil under so much pressure that it comes gushing up through the pipe and soars up into the air, then dramatically gushing down to land all over the ecstatic oil man. Promising him and all of his descendants great wealth for ever and ever, amen.

This shale contains a sort of oil but its not in the liquid form. You could drill all year long and it would never come spouting out of the ground.

What it is, is a oil that’s tied in with the shale, a sort of rock like sand. So, to get this oil away from the sandy rock you are going to have to do something. The current technology mandates that heat it and wash it and eventually the two, the sand and the oil will be separated.

Only there is a problem and its not just the fuel that will be necessary to heat the rocks. You will also need water.


So here’s my story.

Once upon a time I graduated from college. I got my undergraduate literature degree out in Colorado. This was 1975.

Now a literature degree offers great possibilities, I’m sure you know. But most of them aren’t in the job area.

Actually my academic advisor told me, as I graduated, that I had just wasted four years of my life (actually it was three, I was going to school on the GI bill and rather than not have money in the summer I would go to school all year round, so I graduated in three years). And that my possibilities, my adviser informed me were number one, to go to graduate school, number 2. to go back to school and get a teaching degree, Number three. Move back to DC and try to get a job with the government.

He missed out on several possibilities, but you get the idea. He thought my future didn’t look all that hot. However, I should note that in his wisdom he missed one noteworthy career possibility.

He didn’t suggest that I pack up my belongings and drive my VW Beetle over the mountains to Colorado’s western slope and find a job on an oil rig.

But that’s what I did. I went out west to be a roughneck.

At that time I had several friends that had followed the same career path. These were Colorado boys and after getting their liberal arts degrees (on the GI Bill, they had moved home and were working the oil rigs.

Now working as a roughneck (that’s what a guy on a oil rig is called) is not the easiest (I think occupationally its one of the more dangerous jobs) or the cleanest (the local laundry mats have large signs saying DO NOT WASH YOUR GREASERS IN OUR MACHINES!) but it had one benefit. It paid well with lots of overtime.

So I loaded up my car and drove west and ended up renting an old movie theatre (but that’s another story) and got a job at first working the oil rigs and then putting in the pipelines that connected up the natural gas wells they were sinking up in the Book Cliff Mountains.

Beautiful countryside. Plenty of outdoor air. The only problem being finding a place to live. Rangely, this was the town where most of the rigs worked out of, really couldn’t house all the people that were moving into town with the oil industry.

The problem wasn’t the housing. New houses could always be built. Or if not stick built structures, trailers could be hauled in and rented out.

Or the Jobs.

The mid 70's was right after one of the Mideast wars. There was an oil crisis. Gas prices had jumped from below 30 cents a gallon to almost a dollar and everyone was screaming for something to be done. (Ms. Palin’s current chant is nothing new, many people were singing the same thing back then, over 30 years ago). The government was spending money like mad in the perennial cry to be 'energy self-sufficient.' or as the current Governor of Alaska so quaintly calls it, "Drill, Baby, Drill.'

And it wasn't just drilling for oil, or gas it was other energy sources. Potential energy like oil shale.

Only. Only,there was a small problem with western Colorado and Wyoming taking in all of the people that would be necessary to extra all of this oil and oil shale.

The problem was water.

Or the lack of it.

I'm not sure the people back east or up in Alaska had bothered to look, but Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are semi-arid.

There isn't much water.

And a case in point was the water supply for Rangely.

Rangely, back then, and I suspect today, got all of its water from the Rio Blanco River. (And yes the river did run white. Or at least there were white deposits from something the river ran through along its banks and the glasses you chose to drink it from.

But that wasn’t the only problem. the other problem was that there just wasn’t enough of this nasty tasting liquid.

When I moved to Rangely it had a population of, I recall, 1500 people. And I think with the oil boom of the 70’s the population jumped another thousand.

And the water? well what water there was in the Rio Blanco and there wasn’t much of it flowed into town and when it got to town and to the mouth of the intake pipe for the water system they built an earthen dam to collect it.

And all the water from the river went into the pipe.

And leaving the town the Rio Blanco was only an imaginary river. Banks and a bed but no water.

one day that we weren’t working some of us had the bright idea that we would go tubing down the river, so we got our tubes and drove a couple of trucks up the valley. Leaving one about ten miles above town and driving the other twenty miles up where we proceded to unload and dressed in our swim trunks and old tennis shoes walk down to the river. Only, there wasn’t any water. Or at least there wasn’t enough water to float a tube in.

Sure, we would find a pool every once in a while, and maybe it would be deep enough for the tube to float 25, 50 even a couple hundred feet down stream. but it turned out we ended up walking with our inner tubes as much as we floated. A rather educational experience).

Now, as I said, we were located on the edge of the oil shale land. Back then the government had decided that the factory for extracting the oil shale would be a town called Rifle. Rifle was located on the Colorado river but before the idea of extracting oil from the shale it was a town not as large as Rangely. Getting its water from streams flowing out of the Rockies.

(you know, of course, that all the water in the Colorado River is spoken for. Every gallon of that river is owned by someone somewhere down the line. Out west, in the western states, going to law school, you were just as likely to specialize in water rights as family Law. The answer here is no one was gong to take any of the water out of the Colorado that they didn’t own without decades of law suits first being filed, argued and settled).

Which brings us back to Rifle.

Anxious to do something about the energy crisis congress passed legislation and the president signed it mandating that thee oil shale be developed so Rifle went from a small cow town to a huge (by western slope standards) housing development in months.

A demonstration extraction plant was built. Workers started flowing into town. Houses were built. Roughneck bars were opened. Stores built. In fact, like the old westerns, it was almost time for the churches to be built.

And then an important fact was discovered.

There wasn’t enough water within hundreds, really thousands of miles to extract the oil shale.

Oil was there. But the water wasn't. In fact even back then the western slopes extra water had been bought up and piped over to the Eastern slope to water Denver and Colorado Springs and Boulder.

So, the workers were laid off, The houses were left empty. The stores closed. The bars went out of business and the churches. Well the churches were mostly left on the drawing board until another time and another president.

And that’s where we are now.

Yes, there is oil out there in the Western Colorado shale, but it isn’t going anywhere until technology or the basic laws of resources change.


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