Citing technological uncertainties and a wide range of other risks, a new Ceres white paper supports a federal agency’s proposal to take a cautious approach to oil shale production in the western U.S.
At issue is the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to focus oil shale production in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado on “Research, Development, and Demonstration” (RD&D) leases only and to reduce the available acreage to about 500,000 acres from nearly two million acres under an earlier plan.
“Given the wide array of uncertainties, BLM’s proposed leasing approach on oil shale makes sense,” said Ceres president Mindy Lubber, citing regulatory risks, water constraints and numerous other questions about various technologies being pursued to extract a non-liquid form of oil from shale rock. “Investors should be similarly cautious in evaluating future investment in this space.”
“Oil shale technologies are still highly speculative, and proving them to be commercially viable will be difficult and require a long period of time with uncertain outcomes,” said Paul Bugala, senior sustainability analyst, extractive industries, at Calvert Investments. “The little that state and federal regulators know about the environmental impacts, especially in the areas of water use and land reclamation, further indicates that caution should be exercised.”
While oil shale reserves beneath the three states in the Green River Formation are vast, holding more than three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia, the Ceres white paper, Investor Risks from Oil Shale Development, sends a strong cautionary message to policymakers, investors and companies alike.
The white paper, prepared by David Gardiner & Associates, LLC, identifies five key risks to oil shale development:
Core technological uncertainty: Despite decades of efforts, surface and in-ground technologies for producing oil shale still face many uncertainties. The report states: “The uncertainties around continued testing and development of new technologies and processes for producing oil from oil shale leave a great deal still unknown, including the amount of the resource that is recoverable, the efficiencies and costs of various methods, the impacts on natural resources, and the effects of various technologies on the costs of final products (and thus the competitiveness of oil shale).” The white paper cites an earlier report by the Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels (comprised of federal, state, and local officials) which states: “[t]echnology uncertainty is the largest single risk factor associated with oil shale development. This uncertainty remains even after 50 years of government and industry research to develop a commercially viable retorting technology.”
Market risks: Production of oil shale is characterized by significant capital investment, high operating costs, and long payback periods – at least a decade. Uncertainties about the costs associated with developing a first-generation commercial facility, combined with oil price volatility and other uncertainties, pose investment risks that make oil shale investment less attractive than other potential uses of capital. Sporadic attempts to commercialize oil shale have repeatedly failed once oil prices fall.
Water constraints: Oil shale development’s need for water is a particular concern in water-stressed states such as Colorado and Utah. The report cites estimates showing that surface technologies may require 2 to 4 barrels of water for every barrel of product produced while in-ground technologies may require up to 12 barrels of water per barrel produced. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has suggested that the size of the oil shale industry in Colorado and Utah may be limited by water availability.
Regulatory risks: Lifecycle carbon emissions for oil shale fuels are likely to be 25 to 75 percent greater than for conventional petroleum. This means oil shale development could face risks as carbon-reducing rules and regulations take hold – whether low-carbon fuel standards, a price on carbon emissions, lifecycle emissions requirements, or other measures. Other federal and state environmental regulations, including those related to air and water quality, also pose risks to oil shale development.
Risks from public opposition: Public opposition to oil shale based on the actual or perceived environmental impacts could “derail, delay, or increase the costs of such projects,” says the white paper.
More than 70 percent of the Green River Formation oil shale resources lie beneath federal lands. BLM is presently considering public comments on its proposal to limit development to RD&D leases on 252,181 acres in Utah, 174,476 acres in Wyoming and 35,308 acres in Colorado. A decision is expected in fall 2012.
From the Ceres website:
Ceres is an advocate for sustainability leadership. Ceres mobilizes a powerful coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy. Ceres also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a network of 100 institutional investors with collective assets totaling more than $10 trillion.