How Oil Shale Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Josh Clark; a staff writer here at howstuffworks.com. With me is the lovely and effervescent Charles Bryant, a fellow staff writer. How are you, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: I'm great; I'm effervescent and it feels good.

Josh Clark: Good. I'm glad you're feeling good, Chuck. So, Chuckers, have you ever heard of peak oil?

Chuck Bryant: I have Josh, you know, how you could not working here. You're always running around the office screaming about it.

Josh Clark: Well, you know, I feel pretty passionate about it.

Chuck Bryant: You should. You should tell everyone.

Josh Clark: Okay. Well, let me tell you again what peak oil is. It's basically the point in time where we stop finding oil and start running out and the inevitable decline begins because oil is, after all, a non-renewable resource.

Chuck Bryant: Right, it's finite.

Josh Clark: Contrary to some of the heated opinions of a few of our readers who believe that it actually is renewable. I haven't figured out how but most people believe that petroleum is finite. So, we're eventually going to run out and what happens then?

Chuck Bryant: There's a mass chaos [inaudible].

Josh Clark: Exactly. Exactly. We're all in big, big trouble. Our global economy runs on oil quite literally and we need it to function. Luckily, there's all sorts of people who working on alternative energy whether it be bio-fuels, wind power, solar power, hydrogen, who cares. We need to get off of oil. Even Bush, the Texas oil man, thinks America is addicted to oil.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, America.

Josh Clark: Exactly. So, Chuck, while we're looking for new forms of energy, in the meantime, the conventional oil reserves, which are, like, you know, the stuff we pump out of the ground, think Jed Clampett shooting at the rabbit and missing and bumbling crew -

Chuck Bryant: Right, Daniel Day Lewis pulling up oil and there will be [inaudible] -

Josh Clark: Exactly. I will eat your ice cream.

Chuck Bryant: Right. It's not ice cream actually. It's he'll drink your milkshake.

Josh Clark: I haven't seen it. Is it good?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's a bit overrated.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, that's conventional oil, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: All right. So, there's also unconventional forms of oil which is pretty much anything but just conventionally pumped petroleum. One of them is oil shale.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, oil shale is actually - it's kind of a cool thing. It's really - the best way to - the simplest way to describe it is its oil that's trapped in rock and it never had the chance really to bec ome liquid petroleum. It's sort of cut short before that last step and -

Josh Clark: It was stripped of its potential.

Chuck Bryant: It was, sadly, and so it lies underneath the earth just waiting for someone to go down and find a way to extract it, which is actually possible. There's people that are working on that now. One of the big problems with extracting oil shale though is you have to bring up this rock from the earth and the rock is the byproduct so you're left with, I don't know, what was the statistic, how many tons of rock?

Josh Clark: Seven.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, seven tons of rock to make one gallon of petroleum.

Josh Clark: And I'm not a 100 percent sure that's the actual statistic but there is a significant amount of rock left over.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I was exaggerating but it's a lot of rock and they don't know what to do with it and that's one of the issues.

Josh Clark: No, I mean, the best you can do is use it under overpasses to discourage homeless people from setting up camp there which is really about as cruel a use of rock as there is.

Chuck Bryant: It is but I think you know about the shale oil companies got a different method.

Josh Clark: Yeah, they're onto something. It's called instiuretorting - retorting is basically the process of extracting the oil from the shale through heat. They figured out that they can stick these rods down there and heat up these oil shale deposits in the ground -

Chuck Bryant: Right, so they don't have the rock byproduct after.

Josh Clark: Right, the rocks never moved so the carriage in, which is the oil that's found inside, is extracted and pumped out and the rock is left situated. It's good.

Chuck Bryant: Right, so, no mining. They don't have to mine the rock and that's another step to the process.

Josh Clark: That is. That is. It cuts out like a really, really big expensive step and so if Shell can crack this code, which it looks like they're going to be able to do, they have projects underway, it would make America the new Saudi Arabia as far as oil shale went.

Chuck Bryant: That's right because of the green river formation which no one has probably heard of that. It sounds like some sort of neo-Nazi environmental group but what it actually is is its 17,000 square miles of oil shale that's under the United States.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's out west. It's near the four-corner states.

Chuck Bryant: Just waiting to be tapped.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And we've known all about it for a while but interest really began around 1973 with the oil embargo against the U.S. by OPEC when we realized how dependent we are on foreign oil. So, what this interest in oil shale generated and then it waned because oil prices went back down and now with oil prices up as high as they are, interest is getting up again.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Yeah, there's plenty more to talk about as far as oil shale goes and you can find out more by reading, "What's oil shale," on howstuffworks.com.

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