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Earth to Newt Gingrich: Oil Shale Won't Solve the U.S. Energy Crisis

Newt Gingrich has rebounded from his embarrassing presidential campaign to take to the op-ed pages to slam President Barack Obama's energy policy.

With domestic oil production rising and natural gas prices falling to levels not seen in a decade, saying that America is in an “energy crisis” is a tough sell, but Newt gives it a go. His rationale is that Obama is preventing the development of America's vast oil shale reserves, which could, he claims, turn the U.S. into the new Saudi Arabia and bring about Newt's oft-promised $2.50/gal gasoline.

But Newt seems to be confusing oil shale with shale oil (and its close relative shale gas). The latter are conventional hydrocarbons (crude oil and natural gas) trapped within impermeable shale rock; the former is something quite different. Oil shale actually contains no “oil” at all, but rather a precursor hydrocarbon known as kerogen. Given enough time and pressure and kerogen will turn into hydrocarbons like crude oil. Exploiting oil shale means finishing the job Mother Nature started by pulverizing the shale rock, heating the crushed rock under pressure to release the kerogen and then processing it into usable shale oil (not to be confused with the shale oil mentioned earlier). It is a complex, expensive and energy-intensive process. In fact, the Energy Return on Investment (or EROI, an industry measure of production efficiency) for oil shale is typically about 2:1, meaning one unit of energy is used to produce two units of usable shale oil; by comparison the EROI for conventional crude oil averages 20:1, with some oil fields having a much higher EROI than that.

This is the main reason why oil shale deposits have often only been exploited when no other energy alternatives exist. The nation with the biggest reliance on oil shale today is likely tiny Estonia, where much of that country's power comes from oil shale. But the oil shale power industry accounts for 91% of the water usage in Estonia, and is responsible for almost all of the country's air pollution. And Estonia is using raw shale oil in their power plants. To use shale oil to produce gasoline, it needs to be processed further before being ready to use as a substitute for conventional crude oil in petroleum refining, all of which adds to the complexity and cost in using oil shale.

While the U.S. oil shale deposits may be three times larger than Saudi Arabia's proven oil reserves, much of America's oil shale is located in Utah, Wyoming and western Colorado; a fairly arid part of the nation. As mentioned earlier, the production of oil shale is a water-intensive process; between one and three barrels of water are needed for the production of just one barrel of oil shale.  To exploit domestic oil shale at Gingrichian levels would mean either setting up a massive pipeline infrastructure to move water from wetter areas of the country to the oil shale, or taking that water from cities and farmers across Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. These factors are likely the reasons why the  National Oil Shale Association itself (the trade group set up to promote oil shale) discusses oil shale not as a way to get cheap and plentiful gasoline, but rather as a domestic “bridge fuel” for America to use in a decades-long project to move the country off a fossil fuel-based economy.

It could be that Gingrich himself understands the natural and technical limitations of oil shale production, which may be why Gingrich spends much of his op-ed discussing energy sources other than oil shale. If that is the case then Gingrich is playing a verbal shell game – accusing the president of causing a non-existent energy crisis, then proposing a “solution” to this phony problem that he knows will not work.  

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