OK, so this is a science blog, not a political blog. However, when politicians wander into the science realm and the media chooses not to engage, Common Science is going to step in. As I mentioned in a recent post, scientific accuracy is one of the first casualties of presidential politics. During the 2004 presidential campaign, when pressed for ideas on improved energy security, President Bush often waxed poetic on the potential for a “Hydrogen Economy”. Had Common Science existed back then, I would have enjoyed letting you know that due to the inefficient and energy-intensive process required to produce it, there are no plausible large-scale sources of hydrogen in the world. During the 2012 presidential election cycle I will be monitoring the news and letting you know the real story behind the science and technology rhetoric.
Below is a statement made by Representative Michelle Bachmann who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
“We have the number one energy resource rich nation in the world. Did you know that? We have 25 percent of the world’s coal, here. …… We have got more oil in three western states in shale oil than all of Saudi Arabia. Did you hear that on your local nightly news? Are you kidding? We’ve got it. I say let’s go get it.”
With regard to coal supplies, Representative Bachmann is correct; the United States can burn coal to generate electricity for a long, long time. While this may not be a choice all would make, this part of her statement is accurate.
What needs challenging is the portion of the statement on shale oil. Here is an extremely short summary of how oil was formed. Over hundreds of millions of years, algae and bacteria fell to the bottom of ancient oceans and were buried where high temperatures began to chemically covert the dead organic matter into a mixture of hydrocarbons. The deepest (and therefore hottest) material was converted to natural gas, the somewhat less deep material was converted to oil, and the least deeply buried material was converted to a waxy substance called kerogen. Shale oil is a type of kerogen. [Read my earlier post, Petroleum: 300 Million Years of Sunlight, for a full explanation of oil formation.]
Representative Bachmann is also correct in that there is a staggering amount of shale oil buried in the American west. The problem is whether or not you can realistically list shale oil as an energy source. To be an energy source the product you get must contain more energy than what you expended to produce it. For oil shale it is not at all clear that this is true.
First of all, there is a reason it’s called shale oil, not just oil. You can’t pump shale oil from the ground. You have to mine it like coal giving you large pieces of rock (hence the “shale”.) Next you need to break the shale into small pieces to prepare to get out the “oil” (please note the use of quotation marks). Note also that the mining, transport, and processing of the shale uses some of the largest and most fuel consuming equipment ever built by human beings.
Since shale oil is a form of the not-buried-very-deeply, not-heated-very-well kerogen, Mother Nature has done an incomplete job of converting the buried organic matter into a useful fuel. In order to upgrade the shale oil to something useful, it needs to be both heated and hydrogenated (adding hydrogen). As discussed above, obtaining the hydrogen for this is energy intensive, making the shale oil process even less attractive.
When you get done with all of this, most calculations show that you have expended more energy to produce it than is contained in the resulting shale oil. This makes the entire shale oil process, in addition to being environmentally disastrous, completely pointless. To add insult to injury, when you heat the shale to remove the kerogen, the oil-depleted rock expands, a lot. Now you have a solid waste disposal problem because you have a big pile of shale with no obvious use which is too large to put back into the hole you dug in the first place.
Given the critical importance of energy issues in our economy, our future, and our presidential elections, I keep hoping that at least one reporter will ask Representative Bachmann a follow up question on her shale oil statements. Let me suggest, “I understand that upgrading shale oil into a useful form consumes more energy than is contained in the resulting fuel. How do you suggest we overcome this problem?” I suspect she will not have an answer.
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