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Tilting at Windmills

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July 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SHALE OIL....Sen. Ken Salazar (D–Col.) writes in the Washington Post today that shale oil crops up every couple of decades as a potential energy savior promising billions of barrels of black gold if only the goo-goos would get out of the way. This time around, he says, the technology for extracting shale oil looks a little more promising than in the past, but it's still largely unproven:

Unfortunately, the administration's approach carries none of the Western wisdom acquired over the past century. In a frenzied attempt to move a failed agenda in its last days, the Bureau of Land Management is trying to organize a fire sale of commercial oil shale leases on public land.

This sale would be a tragic case of putting the cart before the horse. How is a federal agency to establish regulations, lease land and then manage oil shale development without knowing whether the technology is commercially viable, how much water the technology would need (no small question in the arid West), how much carbon would be emitted, the source of the electricity to power the projects, or what the effects would be on Western landscapes?

....With more than 30,000 acres of public land at their disposal to conduct research, development and demonstration projects (in addition to 200,000 undeveloped acres of private oil shale lands they own in Colorado and Utah), they already have more land than they can develop in the foreseeable future.

So why is the president hurrying to sell leases for commercial oil shale development in the West's great landscapes? A fire sale will not lower gas prices. It will not accelerate the development of commercial oil shale technologies.

Why? I suppose because it gives the impression of doing something, and just happens to benefit a bunch of energy companies at the same time. Has the Bush administration ever needed any more reason than that?

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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Comments

Good havens! You are not implying that the Iraq war was fought for the benefit of the oil industry. Are you?

Posted by: gregor on July 15, 2008 at 1:47 AM | PERMALINK

CALGARY, ALBERTA, Mar 14 2008 (MARKET WIRE) --
TransCanada Corporation (TSX: TRP) (NYSE: TRP) (TransCanada), on behalf
of TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, LP (Keystone), today announced that the
U.S. Department of State issued a Presidential Permit to Keystone
authorizing the construction, maintenance and operation of facilities at
the United States and Canada border to transport crude oil between the
two countries.

Maybe related to this?

Also a South Dakota town has given Hyperion approval to build the first refinery in 30 years next to a good sized river.
http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/12/17/new-refinery-to-be-built-in-south-dakota-to-process-canadian-cru/

At 150 bucks a barrel its may jus be economically feasible to turn 2 tons of shale into one barrel of oil.

Ennyhoo, the Wilkins ice shelf is on its last thread July 15 2008
http://www.spacemart.com/reports/Wilkins_Ice_Shelf_Hanging_By_Its_Last_Thread_999.html

Posted by: Jet on July 15, 2008 at 1:56 AM | PERMALINK

If I recall correctly, in a geology or energy unit of a middle school or high school level science course, it was taught to me and my classmates that shale oil was only a tiny portion of the world's oil resources and that it wasn't easy to extract-- in other words, it was treated as settled science that could be taught to children through a textbook that the shale oil didn't amount to much.

Posted by: Swan on July 15, 2008 at 1:58 AM | PERMALINK

They hate the idea of public land.

Posted by: B on July 15, 2008 at 2:11 AM | PERMALINK

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 $40 a barrel happened and the oil sands not only made sense, they made billions for the people digging them.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It doesnt seem, to me, that shale is much different than sand and could be easily crushed then use the same process Canada is since the price of oil is well above 40$ a barrel.

Posted by: Jet on July 15, 2008 at 2:11 AM | PERMALINK

Okay, I think this is it..Heh.

"Hidden 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountains lies the largest untapped oil reserve in the world — more than 2 Trillion barrels. On August 8, 2005 President Bush mandated its extraction. Three companies have been chosen to lead the way. Test drilling has already begun…"

"Raytheon Co. and CF Technologies think they’ve developed a breakthrough technology that could help ease the nation’s energy supply woes.

The Waltham-based Raytheon and Hyde Park-based CF said yesterday they’ve jointly come up with a new process that would allow companies to tap into huge underground U.S. shale reserves that can be turned into oil.

The technology entails transmitting radio frequencies into the ground, heating up hydrocarbons in shale and then injecting them with critical fluids that force oil toward wells.

The process is cheaper and more efficient than current technologies used to extract oil from shale, Raytheon said. With oil prices now hovering near historic highs, the technology could help make shale extraction more economically viable for oil companies.

Posted by: on July 15, 2008 at 2:18 AM | PERMALINK

Dinosaur goo is not the way of the future. Period. Full stop. The only people who think it is are dinosaurs like John McCain.

Several terrawatts of solar energy bathe the Earth every day. Capturing a small partof it would give us all of the energy we need. Supplemented with wind, tidal and geothermal, we don't need to mess with dinosaur goo to have a robust, sustainable energy future. Fuck tar!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 15, 2008 at 5:58 AM | PERMALINK

Exactly. Except if you wish to drive a car or truck, that is.

Posted by: Pat on July 15, 2008 at 6:54 AM | PERMALINK

I suppose because it gives the impression of doing something, and just happens to benefit a bunch of energy companies at the same time.

How does selling leases to the oil companies benefit them unless they are able to produce oil?

Posted by: DennisBoz on July 15, 2008 at 7:45 AM | PERMALINK

We could all be driving electric cars and trucks by now if Big Oil and auto manufacturers weren't in bed with Dubya.

Who Killed the Electric Car: Wikipedia: "The film deals with the history of the electric car, its development and commercialization, mostly focusing on the General Motors EV1, which was made available for lease in Southern California, after the California Air Resources Board passed the ZEV mandate in 1990, as well as the implications of the events depicted for air pollution, environmentalism, Middle East politics, and global warming.
The film details the California Air Resources Board's reversal of the mandate after suits from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration. It points out that Bush's chief influences, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Andrew Card, are all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies."

venturebeat.com/2008/01/10/27-electric-cars-companies-ready-to-take-over-the-road/

I feel absolutely no sympathy for SUV owners who are whining at the pump. They bought 'em knowing they were gas guzzlers but didn't care as long as gas was cheap. What did they think: gas grows on trees?

Posted by: Everyman on July 15, 2008 at 7:50 AM | PERMALINK

Scams and shams abound. Last week I saw that a company had come into being which promised that its revolutionary fuel would burn without the production of either "heat or pollution." It did not explain how it planned to extract energy from the process, or even what type of combustion occurred without the production of heat.

Scammers will use endless frauds to separate investors, consumers and governments from their money, and possibly more importantly from rational business and environmental laws.

The real problem of course, is to be able to differentiate between new useful technologies and fraud.

Posted by: m on July 15, 2008 at 8:27 AM | PERMALINK

How does selling leases to the oil companies benefit them unless they are able to produce oil?

The oil companies currently have 44 million acres of land based leases as well as some 33 million acres of offshore leases that have yet to be drilled. They acquire these leases for a pittance, fixing their contractual obligations in todays very pro-petroleum legal atomosphere.

They claim the value of the leases as capital assets, control the land for possible future technological advances, and reap endless tax benefits which may very well more than offset the cost of the leases.

Posted by: m on July 15, 2008 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

I would much rather see technology dollars used to turn my roof tiles or window panes into solar collectors than finding ways to postpone the problem. Even a giant oil company success does little more than kick the can down the road.

I guess that is my problem with the Bush/McCain energy plan. Like everything Republican Bush/McCain just want to delay doing the hard work that will be needed to solve our energy problem.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 15, 2008 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

How does selling leases to the oil companies benefit them unless they are able to produce oil?

Most of the 1872 mining law is intact. If you meet minimal paper work requirements and make 500 dollars worth of improvements you can acquire absolute title to the land for $2.50 an acre. There is also no royalty on production at the moment. Best to sign now and hold the paper assets than to wait for reform.

BTW, tarsands are biodegraded petroleum reservoirs. You can separate the hydrocarbons from the sand with a variety of techniques as simple as detergent or steam. Oil shales are immature source rocks -- generally 3-10% organic carbon. You have to artificially mature the shales to get them to generate oil. That pretty much means burning up a good chunk of the oil shale to heat the rest to 400 degrees C or more. The carbon footprint is therefore larger.

Posted by: B on July 15, 2008 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

OMG, at 2:18 am on this thread, the microwaved oil shale zombie meme rose again from the dead!

Microwaves don't work that way. There is nothing magic about them, even if it seems that way as the popcorn pops.

And they take a lot of energy, more than burning some of the oil shale to heat the rest.

It didn't make sense in the 1970, and it doesn't now.

Fuggetaboutit!

Posted by: Cheryl Rofer on July 15, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

@DennisBoz:

Is your point that this obviously must be a good idea if oil companies can make money at it? That's not much of an argument. The oil companies' cost/benefit analysis is not the same as the cost/benefit that the administration should be performing to determine whether issuing shale oil leases is in the public interest.

If the government lets the leases go cheaply enough, oil companies will buy them just to preserve the option. That doesn't mean that the oil extracted will make a significant dent in world oil prices, which (like the prices of other commodities) are determined by many factors other than just supply.

Posted by: The Fabulous Mr. Toad on July 15, 2008 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

I was working in the oil/gas business out on the Western Slope of Colorado the last time shale boomed in prospect, then busted. For the sake of workers who pick up decent wages on the crest of this boom, I hope it doesn't turn to nothing, but as "recovering oil field trash," I second Ron's comment, above. Even in the 70s, it was pretty obvious to anyone who cared to see that what we were doing wasn't going to come up with the long-term painless energy fix of which consumers dream. Rather, we were helping delay the inevitable migration to more sustainable energy technologies.

Re Everyman's mention of "Who Killed The Electric Car," on EBay the other day I found a promotional brochure from (I think) the late 70s for an electric runabout, 2-seater, clothed in one of those fiberglass MGTD bodies. I don't know how many the company sold but it suggests that they had a good idea--to make the electric car something affordable and desirable instead of the automotive equivalent of prescription cod liver oil. Now, thirty years later, some bigger players are coming around to that conclusion but nowhere near fast enough.

Posted by: hdware on July 15, 2008 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

A) Oil shale isn't oil, it's kerogen - a precursor to oil. How does it work? well they drill down, insert huge rods to heat the surrounding rock to 600 degree so and basically expedite the geologic process of turning kerogen into oil.

As much as I think McCain's energy plan is about as laughable as his economic plan, Obama hasn't mentioned the word conservation very seriously either. He just promises electric cars and magical low-cost "alternative" energy sources.

50 years after Admiral Rickover's speech and 30 years after Jimmy Carter, people still think that they are entitled to use as much energy as they want and they government should give it to them.

Posted by: ChrisS on July 15, 2008 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

Anyone who thinks we need to extract and burn more fossil fuels, rather than phasing them out as quickly as possible, is a fool.

Anyone who thinks that McCain's energy policy of offshore oil drilling, shale oil, tar sand, and mountaintop-removal coal mining is going to have any impact on lowering gasoline prices is a fool.


Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

Oil shale will probably be a boondoggle like it was the last time. But even if the technology can work, where's the necessary water going to come from? The Colorado River Basin already has more users than water in dry years. And legal battles being fought over that water are already brutal and expensive. Before we go too far on this, we need to ask a simple question: who will give up their water so this project can go forward? I can guarantee that whoever has to give it up is going to fight hard to keep it. Fighting over water is what we do here in Colorado. The meager profits (if they even exist) from this project will probably be outweighed by the legal costs of securing the water rights.

Posted by: fostert on July 15, 2008 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

All I have to say is "Kenny Boy actually said something against the Bushies?" What happened, oh Crongresscritter mine?

Posted by: Carol on July 15, 2008 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

I'm just waiting for George W to tell us that the answer our energy problems lies in the one great untapped American resource:

The Power of Prayer.

Yes, with only a minimal investment of time, every American can access all the power they want by simply dropping to their knees and praying to the Almighty, whose resources are endless.

Car won't start because you can't afford gas? Just put it in neutral, point it downhill, and Pray to the Holy Spirit!

House cold because you can't afford heating oil in January? Just light a few dozen candles next to your dessicated Christmas tree, and Pray to the Lord Jesus!

Your approval ratings down because oil is at $300 a barrel? Just give Saudi Arabia statehood, close your eyes tightly, and Pray to the Father Almighty!

Posted by: lampwick on July 15, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

and just happens to benefit a bunch of energy companies at the same time.

Exactly and with only 6 months to go in his term expect a lot more pay off attempts from Bush/Cheney to the energy industry.

Posted by: tom.a on July 15, 2008 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

A much better way to extract oil shale:
http://stinet.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA397416

Nuke the shale beds! Atoms for Peace!

Posted by: ajay on July 15, 2008 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

When oil prices go up, it seems like it will be economically feasible to use the oil shale.

But all of the work that goes into making oil from shale becomes a lot more expensive because....oil is so much more expensive.

It's a problem of receding horizons. You need cheap energy to make any money from oil shale. But if energy is cheap, why bother with the shale in the first place?

Posted by: KEn on July 15, 2008 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Loyalty to Oil, Party, then Country, is it? I forget how far down the Bush List of Priorities America falls these days.

What else can we sacrifice for them, our Great Gods of Oil and the Mighty SUV:

Off-shore drilling ban (poof!)
Wildlife Preserve (poof!)
US Democratising foreign countries for the sake of Freedom and Fairly Elected Governments, oil countries that is, as Darfur doesn't seem to be so lucky(poof!) and troop lives (poof!) and Iraqi lives (poof!)
Giving over public lands to oil companies (poof!)
Supression of technologies that would make us independent of oil (poof!)
Supression of public knowledge about pollution and oil spills (poof!)
Dollars from minimum wage earners are going to augment the surfeit of profits by oil companies. (poof!)

Our current government is going to great lengths to service the oil industry, yet the oil will still run out. The long-term view of this administration goes only as far as the interests of the people who have bought this terribly cheap US president.

Posted by: Zit on July 15, 2008 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

John McCain and the Republican Party:

Tired, old ideas from a tired, old man nominated by a tired, old political party.

For Gods sake, at least Barack Obama is intelligent. We have seen where having eight years of a numbskull in charge has gotten us...

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 15, 2008 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

Oil from shale may be dubious, but the stock market is going crazy about gas in shale. Barnett, Bakken, Haynesville, Marcellus, horizontal drilling -- people have made a lot of money in the last year with those names attached to stocks.

Posted by: Bob M on July 15, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

You know what's funny? When the NYTimes publishes articles about the movements of the stock market on its homepage. This morning they started with one about the market tanking; they published that at about 10:30, at which point the market promptly recovered. Now they've updated their article to mention the market's recovery, and the market's way down again.

GIVE IT UP GRAY LADY! JUST WAIT TIL CLOSE!

Posted by: lampwick on July 15, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Kind of like saying, "Let government spend the global warming taxes" will help global warming!

Posted by: MattY on July 15, 2008 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

If I recall correctly, in a geology or energy unit of a middle school or high school level science course, it was taught to me and my classmates that shale oil was only a tiny portion of the world's oil resources and that it wasn't easy to extract-- in other words, it was treated as settled science that could be taught to children through a textbook that the shale oil didn't amount to much.

This might have been in a newsletter sold to schools to give to kids, a television science documentary, or a magazine like National Geographic, but I remember it as being in one of my textbooks and if I were asked to take a guess I'd definitely say that's where I heard it (not from the other sources).

Anyway, check out the Cheryl Rofer comment above.

Maybe the comment at 2:18 is referring to Bush getting taken for a ride more or less by the energy industry? So long as the person developing an extraction technology gets a profit, I suppose they don't care whether their customer can't do the math as to whether it's a worthwhile pursuit or not.

Posted by: Swan on July 15, 2008 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

I have it! We ship all our nuclear waste to Canada (or Wyoming and Montana or wherever), where we inject it deep into their shale oil fields, where it generates enough heat to turn the shale into oil. Two birds and all that.

Posted by: anandine on July 15, 2008 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

I have it! We ship all our nuclear waste to Canada (or Wyoming and Montana or wherever), where we inject it deep into their shale oil fields, where it generates enough heat to turn the shale into oil. Two birds and all that.
Posted by: anandine on July 15, 2008 at 11:51 AM

Goody, great idea. We get to burn radioactive oil. Talk about killing two birds and all that.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 15, 2008 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

An old twist on the 'food for oil' angle: I believe, about 30 years ago, it was demonstrated that run-off from shale oil operations would kill off the micro-organisms necessary for grain production of the Mid-West.

Posted by: Tom on July 15, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Following up on my previous comment:

There are lots of people who will screw our country just to make some money.

Perhaps many of them would even think of themselves as fervent patriots, but they just think patriotism is basically limited to trying to kick out all the blacks and gays.

Posted by: Swan on July 15, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

"run-off from shale oil operations would kill off the micro-organisms necessary for grain production"

That'll teach agribusiness not to pony up.

Posted by: Everyman on July 15, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

I'm just glad that Dick Cheney was head of the Energy Task Force. Things would really be bad if he hadn't had secret meetings with all those CEO's.

Posted by: Stephen on July 15, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Not just is the technology unproven, it's known to use MASSIVE amounts of energy. Expect Big Oil to seek expedited nuclear power plant permits.

Jet, no, no, no... shale has an EROEI (energy return on energy investment, a must-learn acronym), of 2:1 at best. While the sands aren't great, they run 3:1 or 3.5:1 at least.

In addition to massive amounts of energy, far more than oil sand requires, shale requires massive amounts of water.

Dunno about you, but last time I checked, the Western Slope of Colorado didn't have massive amounts of water. And, the small amounts it does have are becoming ever-smaller due to climate change.

Anon at 2:18, your idea is clueless.

Oh, let's not forget the environmental destructiveness of not only using massive amounts of non-existent water, but also of digging miles into the earth, and literally "wiring" the earth, as Shell has proposed, with a mega-electric blanket to turn the kerogen into oil underground.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 15, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, the underground nuke idea was also proposed back in the late '70s, during the initial Western Slope shale rush.

Nothing new under the shale sun...

Oh, this is also an area where an otherwise reasonably smart Democrat, Montana Gov. Schweitzer, is completely off the rails.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 15, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Jet, no, no, no... shale has an EROEI (energy return on energy investment, a must-learn acronym), of 2:1 at best. While the sands aren't great, they run 3:1 or 3.5:1 at least.


Hey, I didnt make a mandate Bush did back in 2005 to extract kerogen from shale. I didnt say I thought it was feasible, obviously someone does.

Posted by: Jet on July 15, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

Well, just for debate, if the price of sand tar became viable at 40$ for a EROI of 3.5 barrels produced to each 1 consumed at what price per barrel would oil shale become viable?

Raytheon claims it can retrieve four to five barrels of oil for every barrel of oil consumed in the process. 1/22/2008 http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/byauthor/221641

This is what Raytheon says....anyway I not an investor, so nanner nanner.

Posted by: Jet on July 15, 2008 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Shale kerogen is back again?

"Kerogen
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kerogen is a mixture of organic chemical compounds that make up a portion of the organic matter in sedimentary rocks.[1] It is insoluble in normal organic solvents because of the huge molecular weight (upwards of 1,000 Daltons) of its component compounds. The soluble portion is known as bitumen. When heated to the right temperatures in the Earth's crust, (oil window ca. 60-120C, gas window ca.120-150C) some types of kerogen release crude oil or natural gas, collectively known as hydrocarbons (fossil fuels). When such kerogens are present in high concentration in rocks such as shale, and have not been heated to a sufficient temperature to release their hydrocarbons, they may form oil shale deposits."

Posted by: on July 15, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

If petroleum is valuable enough, extraction from shale becomes economically viable. It need not even matter that the process consumes more energy than you get out.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 15, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Oil from shale may be dubious, but the stock market is going crazy about gas in shale. Posted by: Bob M

What I find so bewildering is all the billions of cubic feet of gas that has been burned off oil wells for decades. What a waste.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 15, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: "If petroleum is valuable enough, extraction from shale becomes economically viable. It need not even matter that the process consumes more energy than you get out."

The most valuable use by far of all fossil fuels is to leave them in the ground, so as to avoid rendering the Earth inhospitable to life by releasing the gigatons of ancient carbon they contain into the atmosphere.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: "If petroleum is valuable enough, extraction from shale becomes economically viable. It need not even matter that the process consumes more energy than you get out."

That's comical. You want to take back your "We had to destroy the village to save it" rationale or otherwise disown this post?

Posted by: Jeff II on July 15, 2008 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

JeffII,

I don't need to disown it. Only idiots believe EROEI is the only thing that matters in energy production. What matters is the relative market value of the product to the input energy. It might make perfect economic sense to build nuclear power plants that produce gasoline of lesser energy content than goes into it's production, if the market value of gasoline is high enough.

The point is this- gasoline is a dense, flexible, easily used energy source for transportation, for example, whereas the nuclear generated electricity is not so easily used for the same purposes.

Also, in the case of oil shale and petroleum, energy generation isn't the only valuable product of petroleum.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 15, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Only idiots believe EROEI is the only thing that matters in energy production. What matters is the relative market value of the product to the input energy. Posted by: Yancey Ward

Do you always travel with your own shovel?

So, you think it makes perfect sense (I'll even spot you imperfect) to expend three gallons of petroleum fuel (which is how all heavy equipment is powered) to extract one gallon's worth of petroleum, in this case, shale oil?

Okay, here's the deal I'll give you this nice shiny penny for that dime there, and you'll jump at the chance because the penny is bigger than the dime, right?

Posted by: Jeff II on July 15, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: "Only idiots believe EROEI is the only thing that matters in energy production."

If a fuel requires more energy to create than it yields when consumed, it is not a source of energy.

If the creation of petroleum from "oil shale" and "tar sands" requires more energy input than the petroleum thus created yields when burned, then the mining and refining of "oil shale" and "tar sands" is not "energy production", it is energy consumption.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

JeffII and SecularAnimist,

Where did you guys learn to read?

No, it would make no sense to use 3 gallons of a gasoline/diesel to produce one gallon of gasoline/diesel, but that is not what I claimed, now is it?

What I claimed is the following- it could make perfect economic sense to convert one energy input (nuclear energy in my example) into a different kind of energy storage output (gasoline, in my example), even if the energy content of the gasoline is less than the nuclear energy that is used to produce it. Why this might make sense is that gasoline as an energy source has a completely different use profile from electricity- the two are not equivalent energy sources, and it is certainly not inconceivable that the uses of gasoline could have a higher market value than the greater energy input from nuclear power.

And, as I pointed out, petroleum has other uses besides energy generation, making the EROEI even more irrelevant in the case of oil shale.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 15, 2008 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: "... it could make perfect economic sense to convert one energy input (nuclear energy in my example) into a different kind of energy storage output (gasoline, in my example), even if the energy content of the gasoline is less than the nuclear energy that is used to produce it."

Fine, as long as everyone understands that this hypothetical process of somehow converting nuclear energy into gasoline does not "produce" energy and the gasoline it yields is not a "source of energy".

Rather, this hypothetical process consumes energy in the process of converting energy from one form (radiation) to another form (liquid fuel) which is for whatever reason more desirable.

In the case of shale oil and tar sands, we would not be converting some presumably abundant but difficult-to-use form of energy (nuclear radiation) into a smaller quantity of easier-to-use energy (liquid fuel), we would be converting large amounts of high-quality, increasingly scarce fossil fuels (natural gas and diesel fuel) into smaller quantities of essentially the same sort of fuels.

It's hard to see how it makes more sense to consume our remaining supplies of high-quality fossil fuels in the process of mining and refining lower-quality fossil fuels with a resulting net loss of energy, rather than simply burning the high-quality fuels directly in end-use applications.

Tar sands and shale oil are being promoted as "new sources of energy". If they require more energy to mine and refine than they yield when burned, they are not "sources" of energy, period.

Yancey Ward wrote: "... petroleum has other uses besides energy generation, making the EROEI even more irrelevant ..."

Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) only has meaning when applied to the production of energy -- that's what the "energy return" part means -- so of course it is irrelevant to uses of petroleum other than burning it as fuel. What is your point? That oil shale can be used to make very, very, very expensive plastic?

Really, all of this discussion is moot. The USA has sufficient commercially exploitable wind and solar energy resources to produce many times more electricity than the entire country uses -- and once the wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and concentrating solar thermal plants are built, the "fuel" is FREE, FOREVER. If we need high-energy-density fuels for specific purposes where electricity cannot be used directly, e.g. jet fuel, then we can use solar and wind electricity to make hydrogen.

Why anyone is even bothering with idiocy like mining oil shale and tar sands is beyond me.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Why anyone is even bothering with idiocy like mining oil shale and tar sands is beyond me.
Posted by: SecularAnimist

This is the case because the oil producing countries and the oil refining/delivering companies have our balls in a vice and are making lots of money turning the handle.

Converting the nation and world to renewable energy sources will not make obscene profits, which is, of course, why energy production should be nationalized. Energy and water are public goods not to be trusted to the "market." It's too important to be left to capitalist idiots who will participate only if they can make not just profits but huge profits, and externalities be damned!

We have just two modest wind farms in Washington State, which over the last four years have produced a million mega watts of electricity, enough to power 100,000 houses. This in a region that gets most of it's electricity from hydroelectric generation.

You want to do something useful with all the agriculturally marginal or useless land East of the Rockies from Montana to Texas? Turn the entire area into one large wind farm. Likewise for the SW and SE with solar concentrators.

Like drilling offshore, oil shale and tar sands are a joke.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 15, 2008 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

SecAn,
You know I like you and your views, but you are being a tad stubborn with Yancey. Do you use non-rechargeable batteries? AAA or AA. I suspect you have. Well, think about what goes into making them.
Sometimes the "form" the energy comes in can be more valuable than the energy itself.

And Jeff II. I am sure that Washington State has more than 2 wind farms. There are 3 or 4 where I live. And I think there are quite a few further north.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 15, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff II wrote: "Converting the nation and world to renewable energy sources will not make obscene profits ..."

Perhaps not "obscene", but certainly the manufacturers of wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and concentrating solar thermal power plants are profit-seeking enterprises. That's why smart venture capitalists like the founders of Google are pouring big bucks into these technologies, and why more than $70 billion in private investment went into the wind and solar industries in 2007 alone, according to WorldWatch Institute.

Wind and solar power is necessarily a different business model than fossil fuels, because with wind and solar, the "fuel" is free, forever. The profit is in selling the end-users (utilities, businesses, households, communities) the capital equipment they need in order to "harvest" that free fuel rather than in selling them the fuel supply.

But there is still plenty of profit in the wind/solar business model. The Danish, German, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese corporations that are coming to dominate the exploding world market for technologies to harvest limitless, free wind and solar energy certainly know this -- as do their governments, who are adopting the necessary policies such as feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, and investment and production tax credits to jump-start these industries.

Unlike the USA, where we are lavishing tax breaks and subsidies on CheneyBush's cronies in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, while the meager federal investment and production tax credits for wind and solar are due to expire this year, and have not been renewed, thereby threatening to derail the growth of wind and solar power in this country.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

SecAn, You know I like you and your views, but you are being a tad stubborn with Yancey. Do you use non-rechargeable batteries? AAA or AA. I suspect you have. Well, think about what goes into making them. Sometimes the "form" the energy comes in can be more valuable than the energy itself.

True, but not in the context of Kevin's post. The recovery of shale oil and the processing of tar sands (and ethanol for that matter) both consume nearly as much of the energy they are trying to produce. Furthermore, Yancy's bit about nuclear to gasoline bordered on a discussion of alchemy.

And Jeff II. I am sure that Washington State has more than 2 wind farms. There are 3 or 4 where I live. And I think there are quite a few further north. Posted by: optical weenie

You are correct. PSE owns the two I was referring two; that one just above Vantage, and they have another near Walla Walla. As of last year, there were five total in the state serving 1 million households.

http://dwb.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/5635089p-5058861c.html

Posted by: Jeff II on July 15, 2008 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

optical weenie wrote: "Sometimes the 'form' the energy comes in can be more valuable than the energy itself."

Sure. And we already tolerate significant energy losses when we convert heat (from nuclear reactions, or burning fossil fuels, or concentrating solar thermal, or geothermal systems) or wind or sunlight into a more useful form -- electricity -- and transmit it for miles over high-tension wires. Because we still net more energy yield than what we put into it.

And as I mentioned it could make sense to use electricity to produce a fuel like hydrogen for special applications for which it is uniquely suited, even if the overall process consumed more energy than it produced. But to do that, you still need to have some actual source of energy to fuel the process, or you won't be doing it for long.

The problem with oil shale is that we are consuming more energy from diesel and natural gas to extract and refine what is ultimately the same kind of fuel as diesel and natural gas, with a significant loss of energy rather than a gain. It is like taking some percentage of our dwindling supplies of high quality fossil fuels and burning them up for no reason, while claiming that we are "producing" more energy by doing so.

It is not at all like Yancey's hypothetical example of somehow using nuclear power to produce an entirely different form of energy carrier, gasoline (hydrogen from electrolysis would be a more realistic example than gasoline).

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 15, 2008 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff II,
I agree that the "coversion" of nuclear to gasoline borders a bit on the alchemy side. But
don't forget that the output hydrocarbons from shale oil harvesting could be used as feedstock for quite a number of chemical industrial processes - which do gobble up quite a bit of oil. It might even be that the shale oil wouldn't have to be as heavily processed as would be needed to make gas. Provided the chemical syntheses could be tailored to accomodate for the heavier weight organics.

As someone pointed out above, getting the water to do all this, however, is the bottleneck.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 15, 2008 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

When we make our arguments about coverting one form of energy to another, we need to remember our pesky thermodynamics, and specifically entropy. No conversion process can be 100% efficient.

And in the end, it will all be converted to useless energy. Entropy rules! I know because my house keeps getting messy.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 15, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

Weenie: Entropy rules! I know because my house keeps getting messy.

I thought your cat's name was Cleopatra!

Posted by: thersites on July 15, 2008 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

When we make our arguments about coverting one form of energy to another, we need to remember our pesky thermodynamics, and specifically entropy. No conversion process can be 100% efficient. -=Opt Weenie=-

So, if we get too many humans on earth will the magnetic field get bigger or will we get more insane because our collective mentality cant break entropy, like a RAM chip?

*runs off - quickly*

Posted by: on July 15, 2008 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Weenie: Entropy rules! I know because my house keeps getting messy.

So your house cleaning isnt an over-unity type operation?

Posted by: Jet on July 15, 2008 at 9:00 PM | PERMALINK

Check out Nevada Solar One, a solar thermal-to-electric power plant near Las Vegas that produces enough electricity for 15,000 homes.

Scaled up to cover less than 0.5% of the continental US, this efficient, existing technology will produce twice the electricity we currently use --enough for all your needs including transportation by electric automobile.

http://www.nevadasolarone.net
Check it out.

Posted by: deejaayss on July 15, 2008 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

I passed by via memeo, and read both the article and the comments. My conclusion: SecularAnimist is a belligerent knucklehead. Even a dumbass such as myself understood exactly what Yancey was saying, and it had absolutely nothing to do with alchemy. SA just can't admit that maybe Y has a remotely valid point.

What a turd.

Posted by: Surveyor on July 15, 2008 at 10:30 PM | PERMALINK

You know I like you and your views, but you are being a tad stubborn with Yancey. Do you use non-rechargeable batteries? AAA or AA. I suspect you have. Well, think about what goes into making them.
Sometimes the "form" the energy comes in can be more valuable than the energy itself. -=OW=-

Yet they are profitable. Not because of EROI but because we are taught to believe its so. IE economics are, to a point, mental and subject to non-scientific thermodynamics.

I dont approve of such here now, take what you can screw the future type thinking. Its absurd.

So, Shale oil would seem to be following the rechargeable battery ideology.

Money is not GOD, its time to stop such materialist thinking and engage in biological one.

Posted by: on July 15, 2008 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

Even a dumbass such as myself understood exactly what Yancey was saying, and it had absolutely nothing to do with alchemy. SA just can't admit that maybe Y has a remotely valid point. Posted by: Surveyor

Okay, dumbass, just what was Yancey's point vis-a-vis the economics of recovering shale oil and processing tar sands? It must be something only you can read between the lines.

Just in case you haven't been following the thread (pretty obvious), this is Yancey's howler that he thinks makes complete sense.

If petroleum is valuable enough, extraction from shale becomes economically viable. It need not even matter that the process consumes more energy than you get out. Posted by: Yancey Ward

This where Yancey introduces the idea that we can somehow convert nuclear power into gasoline. I think he may mean that nuclear energy can somehow be harnessed to extract oil from shale or tar sands but, again, he never bothers to explain what he means. And, again, since the equipment used to extract the shale oil rock and gather tar sands are all powered by refined oil themselves, it's a pretty sad bit of tautology.

Maybe he's got a back issue of Popular Mechanics from about 1962 that discusses nuclear powered vehicles, and that got him thinking.

Posted by: Jeff I on July 15, 2008 at 11:19 PM | PERMALINK

>So, you think it makes perfect sense (I'll even spot you imperfect) to expend three gallons of petroleum fuel (which is how all heavy equipment is powered) to extract one gallon's worth of petroleum, in this case, shale oil?


See, you guys aren't getting it. All good "futurists" -- by "good" I mean people who are allowed on your TeeVee --- postulate "new technologies" to construct a future that basically looks exactly like today except with more whizzy gadgets. A vision comforting to the consuming-obsessed American.

So what's going to happen is that these "heavy machines" are going to be powered nearly directly from the nuke plant by -wait for it- a great breakthru in battery/supercap technology!!!

So then we'll easily and cheaply produce dino fuel to fill our, uh, strangely still gas-powered personal vehicles.

.... the scary thing anymore is that you make jokes like this then 6mo to a year later you hear somebody seriously saying something like this. They start with an unshakeable belief (Americans are going to always drive bigger, more powerful gas-fueled vehicles and live in 'burbs) and they take the most ridiculous, illogical routes to get to that future. The Underpants Gnomes as always.

PS: Don't you always get a bit of a larf out of Mad Max (and enjoyable movie no matter what) watching all those hyper-souped cars roaring around trying to get hold of ONE gas tanker?

Posted by: doesn't matter on July 16, 2008 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

The fire sale will go to people who have no interest in extracting oil from shale. They will show no interest in developing the technology to make us energy independent. And we will remain dependent on Middle East oil.

Posted by: aline on July 16, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Secular Animist and Jeff II,

Clearly I am wasting my time, but I will make one, last attempt to explain it.

Energy on this planet comes in many different forms. Those forms have different use profiles- because of this, the same equivalent of energy in BTUs from a nuclear power station has a different market value than the same amount of BTUs in gasoline. If gasoline BTUs have a higher market value than nuclear generate BTUs (or wind generated BTUs, or solar generated ones for that matter), then it is conceivable the EROEI can be less than unity, and it is profitable to manufacture gasoline using a non-petroleum energy source as the input.

Optical Weenie, above, provided a perfect example of the concept that is operative today- disposable batteries take more energy to produce than they contain, but it is profitable to do so because the form of the energy has a different use profile from the input energy. Even rechargeable batteries contain less energy than the energy used to do the recharging, and yet people do this every day.

Now, Jeff and SA have claimed that I am proposing some sort of alchemy in my example, however, I am not. The main energy input to converting shale to liquid petroleum is the necessity to heat the material to a high enough temperature for a long enough time. This can be easily done with electricity which can be generated by any number of ways, including those that don't even utilize other fossil fuels.

And, I will point out, it isn't even clear that oil shale has an EROEI that is less than unity. The tar sands certainly don't, since we now have large scale proof of the concept. But that wasn't my point originally, I am only pointing out that EROEI is only a component of the overall profitability analysis of whether or not mining oil shale is going to happen, not the sole determinant. What determines the economic feasibility is whether or not the revenue generated by converting shale to oil can cover the costs of all the inputs.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 16, 2008 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Yancey wrote: "Jeff and SA have claimed that I am proposing some sort of alchemy in my example, however, I am not."

I have not claimed that, although I think your particular hypothetical example of using nuclear generated electricity to somehow produce gasoline is pretty speculative.

I offered what I believe to be a more plausible, less speculative counter-example -- using electricity from nuclear (or any other source) to produce hydrogen from water with electrolysis -- which I think illustrates the same point that I understand you to be making.

There are plenty of examples of consuming energy to produce valuable products -- after all, that's what we generally use energy for.

And if we want to consume energy from some source in order to mine and refine shale oil and tar sands into valuable products -- e.g. liquid fuels, plastics, etc. -- then we can certainly do so; and if it is profitable to do so, then someone will probably be interested in doing it regardless of the hideous environmental consequences.

But that doesn't make oil shale and tar sands sources of energy. If it takes more energy, from whatever source, to produce usable fuels from oil shale and tar sands than those fuels yield when burned, then the production of those fuels consumes energy. And we can certainly go along for a while producing such fuels -- but only as long as we have some other actual source of energy to power that process.

And in reality, we don't presently have any technology for using electricity to produce gasoline from oil shale and tar sands. In reality, that process requires large amounts of natural gas and diesel fuels -- the very same sorts of fuels that would be produced, in smaller quantities, from the processing of oil shale and tar sands.

It's one thing to use electricity to produce a quite different type of energy carrier, such as hydrogen or gasoline, that can be used where electricity cannot, even if you wind up with less usable energy than you would have got from using the electricity directly.

It's quite another thing to use gasoline to produce gasoline through a process that yields less usable energy than you would have got by using the original gasoline directly, and that's the situation we've got with producing gasoline from oil shale and tar sands.

And as I wrote above, all of this is moot anyway. If we continue burning fossil fuels we will wreck the Earth's biosphere and destroy human civilization in the process. We need to phase out ALL fossil fuels as quickly as possible, not find more of them to burn. Fortunately the commercially exploitable wind and solar energy resources of the USA are vast, and more than sufficient to provide several times as much electricity as the entire country uses -- and the "fuel" is free, and limitless.

Unfortunately, those whose "business model" and huge profits are based on selling fuel are using their considerable wealth and power to delay the transition to an energy economy based on free, limitless sources of clean energy.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 16, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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