oil shale

Geothermic Fuel Cells may make vast oil shale resources economically recoverable

The Colorado School of Mines has announced receipt of the world’s first geothermic fuel cell to test for extraction of oil from oil shale in an economic and environmentally responsible manner.  If the technology works, it could make available an estimated worldwide resource of 4.8 trillion barrels of oil, much of which, 2.6 trillion barrels, is in the United States.

Before proceeding, let’s clear up some terminology, the difference between oil shale and shale oil.

The term “shale oil” (and “shale gas”) refers to liquid crude oil and gas trapped in pores and fractures in rock. This resource can be directly pumped from wells. The recent revolution in “fracking” is all about shale oil.

As described by the Department of the Interior:

The term “oil shale” generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (called kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago by deposition of silt and organic debris on lake beds and sea bottoms. Over long periods of time, heat and pressure transformed the materials into oil shale in a process similar to the process that forms oil; however, the heat and pressure were not as great. Oil shale generally contains enough oil that it will burn without any additional processing, and it is known as “the rock that burns”.

Oil shale can be mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells; however, extracting oil from oil shale is more complex than conventional oil recovery and currently is more expensive. The oil substances in oil shale are solid and cannot be pumped directly out of the ground. The oil shale must first be mined and then heated to a high temperature (a process called retorting); the resultant liquid must then be separated and collected. An alternative but currently experimental process referred to as in situ retorting involves heating the oil shale while it is still underground, and then pumping the resulting liquid to the surface.

That’s were the geothermic fuel cell comes in.  The unit being tested at the Colorado School of Mines was built by  Delphi, headquartered in Rochester, NY, for IEP Technology, of Parker, Colorado.  The unit is described in detail by IEP here.

The idea is to place these fuel cells in wells where they will produce crude oil and natural gas to be collected by surrounding recovery wells.  A portion of the oil and gas produced is returned to power the fuel cell.


“After an initial warm up period in which the cells are fueled with an external source of fuel, the GFC self-fuels from gases created by its own waste heat. This self-fueling system, in steady-state operation, produces oil, electricity and surplus natural gases. The result is a geothermic heater that is designed to produce a Net Energy Ratio (NER) of approximately 7.0 (i.e., 7 units of energy produced for every unit used). The net energy ratio of GFCs will increase to approximately 18.0 when primary recovery is combined with residual char gasification and resulting synthesis gas.”

The map below shows the location of the main oil shale resources of the United States.


Gasoline Prices and the Obama Energy Policy

When President Obama took office, the national average gasoline price was $1.83 per gallon according to the Energy Information Administration. As of this writing, the national average gasoline price is $3.39 per gallon. There are many factors that determine the price of gasoline, not the least of which is turmoil in the Middle East. The price depends on supply and demand and upon the expectations of supply and demand.

I don’t know if the Obama administration is simply clueless on energy, or if there is a determined ideological effort to cripple fossil fuel supplies in order to promote renewable energy, but the effect of administration policy is to discourage and hinder domestic production of fossil fuels.

In September, 2008, soon to be Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Wall Street Journal, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Gas prices in Europe averaged about $8 a gallon at the time.

Contrary to administration rhetoric that the U.S. should become more energy independent, administration policy seems to be directed to do all it can to stifle domestic production.

Following the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration imposed a drilling moratorium. That moratorium was lifted last October, but in fact still remains in force. The Interior Department has approved just one drilling application although more than 100 are pending. A federal judge ordered that the de facto moratorium be lifted but the administration has ignored that order. In fact, in early February, the federal judge held the Interior Department in contemp of court for dismissively ignoring his ruling to cease the drilling moratorium which the judge had previously struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.” Ironically, the de facto moratorium of Gulf drilling will deprive the federal government of $1.35 billion in royalties this year.

According to the Heritage Foundation, “Obama also reversed an earlier decision by his administration to open access to coastal waters for exploration, instead placing a seven-year ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and Eastern Gulf of Mexico as part of the government’s 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf Program.”

 The U.S. has abundant resources of oil and natural gas in shale deposits. According to the U.S. Geological Survey the U.S. holds more than half of the world’s oil shale resources. The largest known deposits of oil shale are located in a 16,000-square mile area in the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The USGS’s most recent estimates (April, 2009) show the region may hold more than 1.5 trillion barrels of oil – six times Saudi Arabia’s proven resources, and enough to provide the United States with energy for the next 200 years. But Obama’s Interior Department is reversing Bush-era policy by delaying leases saying they need to take a “fresh look” at the situation.



The EPA has added costly new regulations to refineries over concern with global warming. The EPA is also denying approval of the Keystone pipeline which would increase the amount of oil the U.S. receives from Canada by over a million barrels per day.

If all this were not enough, the Interior Department has instituted a new “wild lands” policy that will bypass Congress in establishment of wilderness areas which will further delay and restrict access to our mineral resources.

The next time you fill your car with gasoline, don’t blame the oil companies for the high prices, the fault lies squarely with Obama’s energy policy.