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Bush Wants to Squeeze Oil from Stone

Tuesday July 22, 2008 Reacting to voter anger over $4-per-gallon gasoline and growing concerns about U.S. dependency on foreign oil, the Bush administration is floating the idea of extracting petroleum from oil-shale deposits in the Western United States that could eventually yield 800 billion barrels of oil, according to government estimates.

At the current consumption rate of roughly 20 million barrels a day, 58 percent of it from outside the United States, 800 billion barrels is enough to satisfy America’s oil addiction for more than 100 years—without importing a single drop. In reality, of course, a new and ready supply of oil would virtually guarantee increased consumption. And any petroleum extracted from domestic oil shale would inevitably be combined with imported oil as well as domestic oil from other sources to meet the growing demand, further extending our dependence on oil.

President Bush has been previewing the notion of squeezing oil from stone in his energy speeches for the past couple of months, and today [July 22, 2008] the U.S. Interior Department is scheduled to propose regulations for a new program to sell leases that would allow oil companies to extract oil from shale on federal lands, primarily in the Green River Basin of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The idea of mining oil shale for petroleum isn’t new, but there are three big problems with using oil shale as a source for petroleum. Namely, oil-shale extraction is:

1.      Expensive—Releasing petroleum from rock doesn’t come cheap. A government program in the 1980s that was set up to subsidize oil-shale development was shut down after it became clear that the cost of extracting the oil would be several times more than its market value. The price of oil today is higher than ever, but other costs have risen, too. Whether oil-shale extraction is now economically feasible remains to be seen.

2.      Energy-intensive--Extracting oil from shale doesn’t just produce energy, it consumes it. Basically, the oil-saturated rock has to be heated to temperatures between 500 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit so the oil trapped in the shale will liquefy. Steam is often used to heat the oil shale, which also requires great quantities of water as well as an energy source to generate the necessary heat. Various methods have been tried, including nuclear energy, and some companies are experimenting with microwave and radio frequency technology.

3.      Environmentally unsound—Despite oil company claims that new technology lowers the environmental risks of oil-shale extraction, most experts agree that the process still leads to significant air and water pollution, and leaves behind mountains of waste that have to be managed. Add to that another century or more of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re looking at a serious environmental threat. Despite the new proposed rules, the Bush administration gesture is largely symbolic at this point—much like President Bush’s executive order lifting the ban on offshore drilling that has no effect unless Congress takes similar action.

In 2007, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) added language to a spending bill that prevents the federal government from issuing final rules for commercial oil-shale development. Unless Congress reverses itself on the issue, the proposed rules can’t be made final and commercial oil-shale development can’t occur.

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