Is it Time to Develop the Green River Formation?
While climate change is a threat, the world still depends on carbon energy to power its economy. It is important to try and decrease the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, but to arbitrarily cut the amount of energy necessary for the modern economic world is not only foolish, but it is also unrealistic.
With the current crisis in Ukraine, and the economic leverage Russia holds over the West in the form of energy, a new and dependable economic source of energy is needed to offset the authoritarian powers that are rich in energy but poor in the field of human rights.
Fortunately, the United States is blessed with 4.2 trillion barrels of oil shale deposits in the upper Midwest called the Green River Formation. The technology is now available to extract this oil, and at a cost that would make the energy from the Green River Formation less expensive, and cleaner than the oil extracted from Russia and the Middle East.
The Green River Formation
The Green River Formation is located at the Green River in western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming.
The energy resources of the Green River Formation are not a true oil, but a form of pre-oil called kerogen. Kerogen is insoluble in water and in other organic solvents such as benzene or alcohol. However, when the kerogen is heated under pressure it breaks down into recoverable gaseous and liquid substances resembling petroleum. It is possible to break down this substance into synthetic oil.
Unlike normal processes of extracting shale oil called fracking, a process called pyrolysis is used. Pyrolysis occurs in the absence or near absence of oxygen. The rate of pyrolysis increases with temperature. “Pyrolysis transforms organic materials into their gaseous components, a solid residue of carbon and ash, and a liquid called pyrolytic oil (or bio-oil). Pyrolysis has two primary methods for removing contaminants from a substance: destruction and removal.”
The hydraulic fracturing method
Hydraulic fracturing is used to recover oil and natural gas in oil shale deposits, where traditional oil drilling methods are not capable of recovering the oil in the rock strata. Hydraulic fracturing is also known as “fracking.” In order to recover the oil using fracking, a well is drilled into the rock strata containing the recoverable oil and natural gas. Then water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the well under high water pressure to continue to fracture the rock strata. This then forces the oil and natural gas out of the well and is recovered into holding containers for further processing.
A huge amount of water is used during the fracking process. This is called the water cost. In a normal fracking procedure, between 1.5 to 9.7 million gallons of water are used to complete the fracking process for just one well. The water used during fracking becomes too polluted to be able to be used for human consumption. While the water used in fracking can be treated to return it to a potable status, the cost of doing so is so high, that typically the contaminated water is pumped into an underground chamber and removed from the rainwater cycle.
The technology to develop the Green River Formation does not use typical fracturing methods, so the water cost for the extraction is minimal. Because of the dramatically lower water cost, the breakeven point for extracting the kerogen is much less than traditional fracking.
The Green River Formation is a national security issue
The economic and political consequences of Russia invading Ukraine are now becoming clear.
One of the more obvious consequences has been the rapid rise in the price of oil. As of March 18, the spot price of oil was $105.64 a barrel. Despite pleas from the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, the Saudis have refused to do so. The United Arab Emirates appears to be siding with the Saudis and have also declined to raise oil production.
The Saudis are unhappy with the Biden administration’s efforts to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. They are also convinced that they have more in common with Russia in the current international environment. The Saudis are also angered by the pullback of support by the United States for its war in Yemen. This would appear to be the death knell of the agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia where the U.S. guaranteed the national security of Saudi Arabia, while the Saudis guaranteed a steady supply of oil.
With the world upended because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the need for Europe to have steady oil and natural gas supplies, it is essential that the United States tap its vast oil shale reserves in the Green River Formation. This would help stabilize the energy security of the United States and its European allies. It would also make the United States 100% energy secure and free the United States from the cauldron of Middle East politics.
It should be noted here that this type of action by the United States would not be adding to the use of fossil fuels in the world. The exploitation of the Green River Formation would simply be displacing the use of fossil fuels from other sources of oil.
The cost of extracting this energy source cannot be accurately estimated. However, since the current technology available consumes less water because of the volatilization of water effect, the water cost is minimal, and so the breakeven cost of extracting a barrel of oil is significantly less than conventional fracking methods.
Reuters has estimated that the breakeven point for shale oil produced by fracking is $50. As noted above, fracking has a high water cost. Since the current technology has a much lower water cost, it can be safely estimated to have a breakeven point of between $25 to $35 per barrel. If economies of scale are used, the cost could fall to as low as $15 to $25 a barrel.