Shale Oil, Not Science Fiction

by Brian McGraw on June 2, 2011

in Blog

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Update 6/3/2011:

In a hastily written post, I erroneously conflated the difference between ‘oil shale’ and ‘shale oil’ and incorrectly thought that the report mentioned below was referring to ‘shale oil.’ Had I been more careful, I would have noticed the end of the report where the author meticulously differentiated between the two. As written, the post below is mostly useless now as I criticize claims that weren’t made. The phrases ‘laughably naive’ and ‘willfull ignorance’ would seem to be more appropriately directed towards my own writing in this case. I apologize to the authors, and thank them for politely pointing out my error in a personal e-mail. Mea culpa.

Unedited, original post below:

So says The Checks & Balances Project.

As evidence for a shale oil boom being science fiction, the report cites a bunch of newspaper articles in the past (seriously, some from the early 20th century) where oil shale is mentioned as a potential future energy source. So, because analysts or politicians (or journalists) thought shale oil would come around sooner than it did, present day shale oil production is apparently science fiction. How about a current newspaper article that actually shows companies using fracturing techniques to get shale oil out of the ground, wouldn’t that disprove the whole ‘science fiction’ notion? The New York Times, Oil in Shale Sets Off a Boom in Texas, from late May:

The oil rush is already transforming this impoverished area of Texas near the Mexican border, doubling real estate values in the last year and filling restaurants and hotels.

“That’s oil money,” said Bert Bell, a truck company manager, pointing to the new pickup truck he bought for his wife after making $525,000 leasing mineral rights around his family’s mobile home. “Oil money just makes life easier.”

Based on the industry’s plans, shale and other “tight rock” fields that now produce about half a million barrels of oil a day will produce up to three million barrels daily by 2020, according to IHS CERA, an energy research firm. Oil companies are investing an estimated $25 billion this year to drill 5,000 new oil wells in tight rock fields, according to Raoul LeBlanc, a senior director at PFC Energy, a consulting firm.

“This is very big and it’s coming on very fast,” said Daniel Yergin, the chairman of IHS CERA. “This is like adding another Venezuela or Kuwait by 2020, except these tight oil fields are in the United States.”

Even if you assume the amount of recoverable oil is much less than projected, referring to shale oil as a ‘science fiction’ is laughably naive, to the point of willful ignorance. Did a number of politicians or industry execs hype its potential in the past? Sure, but that doesn’t mean its present day science fiction.

The irony here is overwhelming. I love the idea of bringing more light to the often pernicious collaboration between big business and government, but given that the ‘Recent News’ at the Checks & Balances Project consists mostly of different attacks on fossil fuels, I am skeptical that an equivalent effort will be made to bring to light historical (and present day) exaggerations made by renewable energy proponents, of which there are too many to count.

Finally, its worth asking: what’s the point of a report like this? It reads as just yet another silly dig on an industry that provides trillions of dollars in benefits to the world and has made our lives much better. No feasible alternative to oil has been developed to provide for the worlds transportation needs. Finally, shale oil drillers aren’t coming to Congress begging for dollars (like the renewable energy industries), they’re asking Congress to get out of the way. That fact, in and of itself, should be evidence that shale oil can make a significant contribution to domestic energy production.


Matthew Garrington June 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Hi Brian,

We appreciate the feedback and critique. Your response, however, makes a rather common error. You are conflating “oil shale” which has never been commercially produced in the U.S. with the highly profitable “shale oil” plays. These are very, very different resources.

There is an Investing Daily article that does a great job explaining the differences between these very different resources:

Also, we believe oil shale is science fiction because we are no more closer today to a financially viable model for producing oil shale that we were when we discovered the resource. But don’t take my word for it. Companies such as Shell are still trying to pull the sword from the oil shale stone saying we have another decade of research before we’ll even know how to extract oil shale.

Tracy Boyd, Shell Corporation: “In fact, it could take up to 10 to 12 years of additional research, environmental analysis and permitting before a company could develop a federal oil shale lease.” – Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Oil shale decisions could affect Garfield County, Nov. 11, 2008

And who knows if that prediction is any closer to what was written in a 1917 Christian Science Monitor article: “Thousands of acres of land in the rich oil shale area in western Colorado, productive of unlimited combustible and munitions material, have been filed on recently by Colorado and eastern syndicates, says the Times, and preparations are underway for the development of the fields this spring.”

Let’s have an honest conversation about oil shale and stop touting it as a resource to save us from high gas prices when we don’t yet know how to develop it.

Richard J. Schneider June 6, 2011 at 5:55 pm

“In a hastily written post, I erroneously conflated the difference between ‘oil shale’ and ‘shale oil’ and incorrectly thought that the report mentioned below was referring to ‘shale oil.’ ”

Bull. do your homework or get out of the internet tubes!

–Richard J. Schneider/Denver..

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