Have you ever thought how your life would be without petroleum? How would you drive to work? How would you heat your house in the winter? Afraid of what the future holds for petroleum, industries have recently begun looking for alternative fuels to supply human needs. They have found an abundant alternative energy source in the U.S.: shale. Shale is a dense rock that can be burned for fuel and has much to offer the energy industry. However, questions arise over whether the extraction of shale would harm the environment or the people that live near extraction zones.
The United States has one of the largest oil shale reserves in the world. It is estimated to be eight times bigger than the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. As stated in the Mongolian Mining Journal, “the United States has found more than 100 years’ supply of shale gas in the Marcellus and Barnett formations,” which are located in the Green River Basin region of the U.S., which includes Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Similarly, other reserves in the Green River Basin, like Bakken and Niobrara are producing an extremely high amount of oil. As a result, major companies have been developing technologies to harvest this new found shale oil and gas (“What are shale oil, shale gas and oil shale?,” Mongolian Mining Journal, N.p., accessed March 16, 2014, http://en.mongolianminingjournal.com/content/34622.shtml).
A map showing shale gas across the United States. Map provided by Brian O’Keefe.
What Is Oil Shale?
Oil Shale is a sedimentary rock formed from the deposition of very fine clay-sized particles of different rocks and organic matter at the bottom of deep waters, like oceans and lagoons. Layers of sediments, dead plankton, and algae eventually cover other layers, and the weight of these particles lead to lithification (the process of turning into stone). The more sediments are deposited, the higher the pressure and temperature, isolating the organic matter from the rock itself. The organic matter turns into an oily substance called kerogen and shale gas.
Kerogen is harvested and used in the shale oil production (“Shale,” Minerals Education Coalition, N.p., accessed April 4, 2014, http://www.mineralseducationcoalition.org/minerals/shale). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Shale is the most abundant of the sedimentary rocks, accounting for roughly 70 percent of this rock type in the crust of the Earth” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “shale (rock),” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed April 4, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/538082/shale). Shale can be black, red, or green. However the black type is the one that is hunted by the oil industries due to its high concentration of kerogen.
In order to harvest shale oil, the sedimentary rock has to be exposed to extremely high temperatures and have no contact with oxygen. This process is called retorting. Petroleum engineers have found that there are two different ways to collect oil shale from the ground. The first method is to heat the sedimentary rock underground until the shale is fluid enough to flow easily through a small pipe and be pumped to the surface. The other method is to mine the rock, crushing the shale so it can be brought to the surface (“Oil Shale vs. Shale Oil,” Colorado Oil & Gas Association, N.p., accessed March 16, 2014).
The contemporary method of producing shale is hydraulic fracturing, also known more commonly as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture the shale and release the gas that is inside the rock. The fluid used in the process is a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals. This method is very efficient because it is possible to harvest not only the gas that was trapped between rock layers, but also the gas trapped inside the rocks (“Hydraulic Fracturing,” Dangers of Fracking, N.p., accessed April 2, 2014).
History of Oil Shale
Oil shale has been used as a fuel source since the prehistoric times because the rock can burn without any industrial process. In the 1350s, oil was extracted from shale and used for medicinal purposes. However, the first oil shale extraction patent was not granted until 1684 by the British Crown. Even after the first shale extraction patent, it took until the 1830s for commercial production of shale oil to pick up. During the 1830s, France mined large quantities of shale and heated it in special ovens called retorts. Scotland was the next country to initiate a oil shale industry, which was successfully operating by the 1960s. According to the article “History of Shale,” soon after Scotland’s interest in shale production grew, “commercial production of oil shale could be found throughout Europe, Estonia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and North America”(“History of Oil Shale,” History of Oil Shale, RedLeaf Resources Inc., accessed April 4, 2014).
The first shale oil industry in North America was established in Alberta, Canada, in 1815. By the U.S. Civil War, 50 companies throughout the United States and Canada were retorting shale to produce oil. They were not very successful, and most of the oil was used to produce kerosene. In the twentieth century, oil shale production was interrupted because of the discoveries of liquid crude oil in the United States and Middle East. Abundance and easily accessible crude oil led companies to set the shale oil extraction business aside for a while. Today, with the urge of finding new energy sources, the industries are yet again interested in oil shale (“Oil Shale vs. Shale Oil,” http://www.coga.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/1-Basics_OilShale.pdf).
A History of Protest & Problems With Shale Production
Recently, an Estonian governmental company, Enefit, has expressed its intention to explore the shale oil in the region of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, also known as the Green River Basin. However, there is an environmental movement vowing to fight against the company because they fear the impact of this industrial process. However, Enefit officials claim that they have invented a way to extract oil and not harm the environment (John M. Rogers, “Can oil shale be the next energy boom?” Enterprise/Salt Lake City 43, no. 8 (October 7, 2013): 11, Regional Business News, EBSCO_host_ (accessed February 11, 2014)). Yet environmentalists wonder if this would even be possible. They ask: how can you extract oil and gas from the interior of the earth and not impact the environment and the surroundings? Based on the history of shale oil production, this does not seem a likely possibility.
Australia has the longest history with oil shale production, having been through nearly 50 years of attempts to establish an oil shale plant. However, the country had a bad experience with the first oil shale plant in Queensland. An interview with people that lived near the area of the oil shale plant had much to say about what went on while the operation was taking place. One of the community members stated: “At least half of the people that lived in this area suddenly died from cancer for no reason at all”(Sarah Clarke, “Community’s fears as shale oil production begins,” ABC News Australia, 6:19, accessed April 3, 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-02/communitys-fears-as-shale-oil-production-begins/4664018). According to the Queensland community, it impacted not only the people but the whole environment. The emissions given off during production were harmful for both animals and plants even miles away from the company. Years after the Queensland plant was closed, people in a radius of three miles are still having health problems due to emissions and odors of the old plant.
A protester’s sign at a 2013 anti-fracking rally. Photo provided by the Maryland Sierra Club under the Creative Commons
Shale in the Gulf South
Among many oil shale reserves in the United States, the Haynesville region has a black and organic rich type of shale. Located on the corner of three states: Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, it was formed by organic matter deposited in the shallow waters of the Gulf South around 150 million years ago in the Jurassic Era. The extraction in this region occurs around two miles deep, whereas the usual extraction depth would occur around one mile deep. According to the article “Haynesville Shale,” “the most productive areas have been Caddo, Bienville, Bossier, DeSoto, Red River and Webster Parishes of Louisiana plus adjacent areas in southwest Arkansas and east Texas”(“Haynesville Shale: News, Map, Videos, Lease and Royalty Information,” Haynesville Shale Gas, N.p., accessed March 16, 2014, http://geology.com/articles/haynesville-shale.shtml).
Oil production in the Haynesville region has been dropping throughout the years, and the focus of oil shale extraction in the Gulf South turned to a reserve in the south of Texas: Eagle Ford Shale. Before, the reserve was meant to have rocks with low permeability. which did not allow gas into the production wells. Everything changed in 2008 when a company called Petrohawk drilled in La Salle County and had an initial flow rate of 7.6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day thanks to techniques called hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and horizontal drilling (“Eagle Ford Shale,” Eagle Ford Shale: Oil & Gas Resource Surprises Geologists, N.p., accessed April 4, 2014, http://geology.com/articles/eagle-ford). But is the population nearby also thankful for these techniques?
The Eagle Ford Shale region is, according to Steve Everly, “arguably the largest economic development area in the entire world right now. There are a lot of different companies operating there. There is an enormous amount of investment flowing into the Eagle Ford.” Because of the amount of money being invested in the region, the government of Texas does not seem to care much about what the people have to say about the impacts of the “fracking” to the environment. The Eagle Ford region population claims that not only did the water become toxic but the resulting air pollution has caused serious respiratory problems. Residents in the area also say that there is no governmental institution monitoring the air quality in the region (“Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale,” Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie, N.p., accessed April 4, 2014, http://stories.weather.com/fracking).
To run the current amount of wells in the United States using the method of “fracking,” it is estimated that 72 trillion gallons of water and 360 billion gallons of chemicals will be needed. Only 30-50% of the fluid is recovered after the fracturing. The leftover amount escapes and seeps into the ground, often to the water bodies, and contaminates water wells in the cities nearby. The fluid that is pumped back from the ground is left in open air to evaporate, releasing harmful compounds that contaminate the air, cause acid rain, and affect the ozone layer. According to the article, “Hydraulic Fracturing,” “there have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling, as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water”(“Hydraulic Fracturing,” http://www.dangersoffracking.com).
The Future of Shale
Shale oil production has the potential to be as important as petroleum production, and the biggest concentration of reserves happen to lie in the U.S. However, the biggest concern with oil shale production lies in its potential impact to the environment and to the population that lives around the industries and drilling areas. Some countries like France, Romania, Germany, Bulgaria, South Africa, and Spain, among others around the world, have banned the hydraulic fracturing process due to these environmental concerns (“Keep Tap Water Safe,” List of Bans Worldwide, N.p., accessed April 4, 2014, http://keeptapwatersafe.org/global-bans-on-fracking).
Most of these countries claim that they will keep it banned until there is proof that shale gas exploration will not harm the environment. The U.S. government does not seem worried at all with the environmental problems that have been happening. Only three states in America banned “fracking,” they were Vermont, New Jersey, and New York. However, no action has been taken to the regions that need most attention, like the Gulf South and Green River Basin. Only time will tell whether the world’s need for oil will outweigh the environmental risk.