Oil shale as a magic bullet?

Oil shale.

It’s the buzz lately for politicians needing an easy explanation of how the U.S. can use domestic resources to end the country of its dependence on foreign crude.

Republicans from President Bush to Colorado U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer have pointed to oil shale as a possibility for America to lay claim to 800 billion barrels of crude — three times the reserves of Saudi Arabia — in Colorado alone.

But, how realistic is oil shale production and why haven’t energy companies utilized it before now?

Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar has questions, as outlined in this Washington Post op-ed he penned Tuesday, and he isn’t alone.

The short answer is oil shale is not an efficient or economically viable energy source today.

The technology is fairly simple and decades old: You heat up shale and sand to extract oil trapped in it.

But it’s not the high grade of oil that comes out of Saudi Arabia. Oil shale is low-grade and requires additional, energy-intensive refining before it can be refined again into gasoline. When you look at the energy used to heat the sand and then refine twice and compare it to the energy gained from burning the end product of gasoline, questions of its viability arise.

As the price of crude goes up and newer technology develops, the viability of oil shale catches renewed interest which is why energy companies are leasing land and buying water rights on the Western Slope of Colorado at a fast clip.

Oil shale production requires lots of fresh water. Some of the water rights being sold to the oil companies in oil shale-rich regions (think Colorado River) are currently being used to irrigate food crops and ranch land. Or in other words, as we work to make oil shale accessible to consumers, it could come at the cost of food production.

In the first debate between he and his Democratic opponent Mark Udall Monday, Schaffer blasted Democrats for putting up roadblocks to energy companies’ push for oil-shale and other domestic energy development in part by prohibiting drilling on certain federal and state lands that contain the valuable shale.

Schaffer, a former oil executive, said production is years away at best but that America will never know if the technology is viable if hurdles are in the way.

Some hurdles that are in the way that will be harder to remove than just opening acres to drilling are unpredictable oil markets, growing water demand on the Western Slope and large electricity needs to refine the shale.

As gasoline prices climb the potential for oil shale production in Colorado will continue to be a campaign topic and in the headlines. But, don’t expect it to lower the $4.10 gallon gas you’re paying to fill up the family car.

Most everyone agrees those prices are here to stay.

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