Study: Estonia a stark example of environmental hazards of oil shale

Looking for further evidence that oil shale production is — or at least should be — a nonstarter on Colorado’s Western Slope until oil and gas companies radically refine the massively water-intensive process?

Conservationists say there’s no better example than Estonia.

The world’s leading producer and consumer of oil shale — generated by superheating organic kerogen trapped in rocks in sand — Estonia has seen some serious environmental problems over the course of 80 years of production, according to a study published in the journal of the London-based Royal Society of Chemistry.

Besides “voluminous dewatering,” the chief concern in arid Colorado, oil shale production in Estonia leaves huge heaps of residual limestone, ash piles and semi-coke, and the power plants that consume oil shale emit above-average amounts of carbon dioxide, while “the groundwater regime, and often also the water quality, are altered in mined-out areas.”

If that doesn’t sound scary enough to seriously question risking Colorado’s fragile mountain environment, consider this quote from the report titled “Environmental problems in the Estonian oil shale industry”:

Oil shale waste and waste heaps may be considered a rather innocent production residue; however, from time to time they are subject to self-ignition.

The Western Slope of Colorado is currently a massive tinderbox as a result of an ongoing mountain pine park beetle infestation that has killed nearly 2 million acres of lodgepole pine forests. Self-igniting waste heaps should probably be avoided at all costs.

To be fair, the report states the worst of Estonia’s environmental degradation occurred during the 1980s — about when Exxon was packing up its oil shale camps and heading out of town in Colorado, leaving thousands out of work overnight — and that things have improved a bit since. But much work clearly remains, and many conservationists question pumping billions into oil shale research instead of bolstering renewable production.

So transforming Colorado into Oklahoma via the oil shale industry may be a goal of Republican U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, but surely even he would draw the line at turning the Centennial State into the second coming of Estonia.