Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Oil Wealth For Utah: Is Another Piece of the Puzzle About To Drop Into Place?

     LDS readers may be aware of a prophecy of Brigham Young concerning the wealth that would eventually be attained by the Latter-Day Saints in Utah. However, this wealth would come at the cost of great wickedness among some of the Saints. Brigham Young warned, "I do not worry about the Saints in poverty but when the Lord sees fit to open the great oil reserves in Utah, I tremble for them."

     I have puzzled about the source of this oil--where it would come from--for Utah has no significant oil fields like Texas and Oklahoma. One possible source is the Green River Formation containing perhaps the largest reserves of oil in the world. The formation spreads across Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, and may hold as much as 4 trillion barrels of oil.

     The problem is in extracting the oil. The oil is locked up in oil shale. Current technology requires the shale to be strip mined, then heated to cook out the oil--an expensive and labor/resource intensive process. But researchers may have discovered a method to extract the oil more cheaply and in a way that is safer for the environment: using microwaves. In an article entitled "Move Over, Fracking, There's A New Technology In Town," at Ozy Magazine, James Watkins reports:
As strange as it sounds, producers are experimenting with ways to zap previously unextractable oil resources with microwaves, which has the potential to kick-start an even bigger energy revolution than fracking — and appease environmentalists while they’re at it. This is potentially “a whole shift in the paradigm,” says Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast, a Colorado-based company pioneering the use of the microwave tech. Some marquee names are betting on the play: Oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips are pouring resources into developing similar extraction techniques, which can be far less water- and energy-intensive than fracking.
And their eyes are on the Green River Formation. The article explains the process:
Producers would microwave oil shale formations with a beam as powerful as 500 household microwave ovens, cooking the kerogen and releasing the oil. It also would turn the water found naturally in the deposits to steam, which would help push the oil to the wellbore. “Once you remove the oil and water,” Kearl continues, “the rock basically becomes transparent” to the microwave beam, which can then penetrate outward farther and farther, up to about 80 feet from the wellbore. It doesn’t sound like much, but a single microwave-stimulated well, which would be drilled in formations on average nearly 1,000 feet thick, could pump about 800,000 barrels. Qmast plans to have its first systems deployed in the field in 2017 and start producing by the end of that year.
There are also other benefits:
“We don’t need water for our process,” Kearl says, “and we don’t have wastewater to dispose of afterward.” In fact, microwave extraction might produce water — one barrel of water for every three barrels of oil. In situ recovery using microwaves also avoids the massive environmental impact of mining and then processing the kerogen. What’s more, natural gas that often is flared off in conventional oil-well production could be used to power the generator that creates the microwaves.
    The article indicates that the biggest obstacle, right now, is the price of oil. Using current technology, the break even point is $65 per barrel (still well below what OPEC wants). But I'm sure that, just like fracking, the prices will come down once the new technology begins to be widely adopted. We may never again see $100 per barrel prices (in current dollars) in our lifetime.

    So, who knows? This may be the key to the puzzle of Utah's prophesied wealth from oil.

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