Greenwashing Shale Oil Extraction?

by STEVE HORN

At the Clinton Global Initiative in 2008, former Vice President Al Gore called the possibility of fossil fuel corporations extracting oil shale “utter insanity.”

Insanity, though, doesn’t serve as a hinderance for deeply entrenched and powerful fossil fuel interests.

Oil shale, also known as kerogen, should not be confused with shale gas or shale oil, two fossil fuels best known from Josh Fox’s “Gasland.” As explained in a report by the Checks and Balances Project,

Oil shale itself is a misnomer. It is actually rock containing an organic substance called kerogen. The rocks haven’t been in the ground for enough time or under enough pressure to become oil. Oil companies need to recreate geological forces to produce any energy from it. Ideas for developing oil shale have included baking acres of land at 700 degrees for three to four years and even detonating an atomic bomb underground.

The really “insane” part of the equation: oil shale production, which has yet to begin, would be ecologically destructive to the extreme.

“Because oil shale is a rock, commercial production would release 25% to 75% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil,” wrote the Western Resource Advocates. Furthermore, like tar sands production and shale oil/gas production, oil shale production is a water-intensive process.

Adding insult to injury, in the 100 years of attempted commercial production of oil shale, the fossil fuel industry has yet to seal the deal, motivating an April 2012 report by Checks and Balances titled “A Century of Failure.”

Greenwashing? Red Leaf’s “EcoShale” Oil Shale Extraction Process

For the past century the oil shale public relations line has resembled that of a “science fiction story.”

The latest chapter of the science fiction story is currently being written by the Salt Lake City-based Red Leaf Resources, the developer of “EcoShale In-Capsule Technology.”

Red Leaf is the oil shale industry’s Schlumberger and Halliburton. That is, its business model is the equivalent of oil field services, or in this case, “oil shale services,” with its “EcoShale” equipment.

It claims “[EcoShale] technology requires no process water, protects groundwater and vegetation, uses low temperatures for heating and allows for rapid site reclamation.”

The proof will be in the pudding, for that claim remains to be seen in action.

The most likely scenario: naming a piece of technology “EcoShale” for a commercial production process that “would release 25% to 75% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil” is textbook greenwashing.

Next Steps for Red Leaf’s “Eco Shale” Equipment Usage Include Road Block

In March 2012, the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining in Utah granted Red Leaf a production permit to extract oil shale in eastern Utah’s Uintah Basin utilizing its “EcoShale” equipment.

Red Leaf Resources, explained the Utah Tribune, “is proposing to begin large-scale oil shale extraction on close to 1,500 acres in the Uintah Basin and ship the extracted oil to customers in Utah, Wyoming and in the Gulf Coast region.”

With over 17,000 acres worth of mineral rights in its name, “Red Leaf has said it will be ready to hit the production stage some time later this year, churning out an estimated 9,500 barrels a day,” wrote the Tribune.

In late April 2012, Red Leaf struck gold, signing a joint venture production-sharing deal with French oil and gas industry giant, Total S.A.

“Total SA, Paris, will fund 80% of the cost of an early production system to demonstrate the commercial scalability of a proprietary process owned by Red Leaf Resources Inc.,” wrote the Oil and Gas Journal. The Journal continued,

As part of its agreement with Red Leaf, Total has the right to license Red Leaf’s patented EcoShale In-Capsule Process for use at other future oil shale projects worldwide and has become a shareholder of Red Leaf. Red Leaf reported completing a $100 million equity offering in connection with the closing of the JV with Total.

Its grandiose plans, though, hit a roadblock when, facing a legal challenge over its production permit from the environmental advocacy group Living Rivers, Red Leaf decided to back away from the legal challenge and suspend its plans until it conducts further scientific analyses.

“It is unknown when the analysis will be completed and the meetings can continue, although it should be before year’s end,” explained the Center of the American West’s Oil Shale in the West blog.

It seems the future of oil shale is up for grabs and whether there is a faux-Green “EcoShale” future or an actual sustainable clean energy future in North America remains to be seen.

“Utter insanity” or not? That’s the real question on the table.

Steve Horn is a Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog, where this story originally appeared.

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