School of Mines 33rd Oil Shale Symposium recap

Map of oil shale and tar sands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming -- via the BLM
Map of oil shale and tar sands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — via the BLM

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

It could require less than half a barrel of water to buoy up a barrel of oil from the high desert of the west, Shell Oil Co. said. One barrel of oil could be produced from oil shale for as little as a third of a barrel of water, Tom Fowler, commercial lead for the Shell project, said at the 33rd Oil Shale symposium at Colorado School of Mines.

Water use has long been a point of contention in the running battle over the development of oil shale.

Shell’s announcement comes on the heels of its decision to shift assets away from oil shale in northwest Colorado to other assets, among them a $12.5 billion shale-to-gas plant in Louisiana.

“We were laser-focused on water,” and the techniques refined in Colorado “translate very well to other places, I’m specifically thinking of Jordan, where they also are very concerned about their water, Fowler said.

Shell’s new estimates are based on a project producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day.

One major factor in Shell’s reduction in anticipated water use was to switch from water cooling to air cooling, especially in the power-generation part of the process. Power is needed to heat the rock to about 700 degrees Fahrenheit to free kerogen from the rock. Vaporized kerogen condenses into crude oil that can be recovered.

Shell also reduced its estimates of water use by targeting the deepest, though not richest, layers of oil shale, Fowler said. By recovering oil from the deepest layers, which lie beneath groundwater, the company eliminated any need to steam-strip the area from which it removed kerogen. That, combined with other efforts to reduce and better manage water, could reduce the ratio of water to oil to 0.3 barrels of water to 1 barrel of oil. It also would leave the richest layers of shale still available for development with more refined techniques in the future, Fowler said. Shell’s estimates include domestic water and usage for reclamation and other purposes.

The most kerogen-rich oil shale in the world sits in northwest Colorado, under thousands of feet of overburden and Shell’s departure leaves one company pursuing development of shale in place, with little surface disturbance.

Two companies, Enefit American Oil and Red leaf Resources, are mining more shallow resources in Utah and heating them to recover oil.

Shell’s estimates don’t apply to those techniques, but Enefit American Oil says its methods will require between one and three barrels of water per barrel of oil, with the likely outcome closer to the lower end.

Opponents of oil shale development frequently cite a Government Accountability Office report, widely panned by industry officials, citing water needs at seven barrels per barrel of oil produced.

More oil shale coverage here via Gary Harmon writing for The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

While oil shale development in the United States suffered a blow when Shell Oil announced it was pulling out of its much-touted Mahogany project, other nations are encouraging industry development. Genie Energy, which is still moving ahead on its project in northwest Colorado, has a new project in Mongolia. Irati Energy, based in Canada, is moving ahead on a pilot oil shale project in Brazil. Enefit American Oil, a subsidiary of Eesti Energia, the world’s largest oil shale company, also has a concession, or lease, in Jordan, to produce electricity and oil from shale deposits there.

And while Shell pulled out of Colorado, it didn’t pull out of oil shale. The international energy giant still is working on an oil shale project in Jordan, despite abandoning its plans to produce oil from shale in the Colorado portion of the Green River formation.

China, Morocco and other countries are seeing development of their oil shale deposits, as well.

Northwest Colorado, the focal point of the richest, thickest deposits of oil shale in the world, however, is seeing no new interest in its deposit even as Enefit American Oil is working to produce oil from shale in neighboring Utah.

David Argyle organized Irati Energy to begin work on the Brazil project and he’s on the lookout for new resources. He’s not looking immediately at the U.S., however.

“We don’t have the time or patience” to work through the regulatory issues facing oil shale development in the United States, Argyle said, noting that he doesn’t reject development in the United States out of hand.

The industry, however, has to overcome emotional opposition, despite having a good environmental record, Argyle said.

“In Brazil, we’re getting quietly on with it. In Israel, they’re getting quietly on with it,” Argyle said of oil shale development.

Boom-bust cycles aren’t a major issue because the Brazil project anticipates a 200-year lifespan, Argyle said.

Another project in Brazil has a 300-year lifespan, he said.

The development around the world demonstrates that “oil shale has a global footprint” that is growing, Argyle said. That footprint expanded into Mongolia by accident, said Claude Pupkin, Genie Energy CEO. Genie Energy sent a geologist to Mongolia on an unrelated mission and he stumbled on a “world class,” previously unrecognized oil shale deposit, Pupkin said.

“We’ll do a pilot project that is smaller than AMSO,” Pupkin said, referring to the American Shale Oil project in Colorado.

In both cases, the projects will be in-situ, meaning that there will be little surface disturbance. Genie obtained commercial production rights and is working with the government in Mongolia to establish a regulatory system for development, Pupkin said.

Colorado’s deep oil shale deposits don’t fit with the retorting technology developed in Estonia, Enefit American Oil CEO Rikki Hrenko said.

Update: From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

With the shadow of Nazi occupation looming over the country, Sweden turned to oil shale in 1940.

“Oil shale got the Swedish economy through World War II,” Dr. Harold Vinegar said.

Vinegar outlined for the Oil Shale Symposium at Colorado School of Mines last week how Sweden exploited a low-grade oil shale deposit near the town of Kvantorp, using an in-situ process that bore a striking resemblance to the in-situ process Shell Oil Co. was pursuing in northwest Colorado. Vinegar is an oil and energy scientist who spent more than 30 years with Shell.

The Swedes already were mining the same oil shale deposit when they became frustrated by the cost and difficulty of digging to reach the shale they retorted to produce oil, Vinegar said.

Fredrick Ljungstrom came up with the idea of heating the shale in place and leaving the soil above it undisturbed. Ljungstrom drove heating elements in a closely spaced hexagonal pattern down into the shale and sunk a collection well in the center.

The heaters and wells were shallow, in the tens of feet instead of the thousands of feet below the surface in the Piceance Basin.

Making the project more difficult was the lack of electricity. Ljunsgstrom could only get electricity to heat the shale four months of the year, during the spring runoff, when hydroelectric power was available, Vinegar said.

During those months, Ljungstrom used a mobile transformer to direct power into the cells he was using at any given time to heat the rock to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It really was a brilliant idea,” Vinegar said.

And it worked.

The Ljungstrom process produced 90,000 barrels of oil from 1942 to 1945 and 1.5 million barrels during its production life that ended in 1959. The oil produced from Ljungstrom’s in-situ process was lighter and cleaner than the oil produced from the retort process on the same deposit, Vinegar said. Groundwater beneath the deposit was protected by an impermeable clay layer that prevented contamination, Vinegar said.

In addition to inventing what is known as the Ljungstrom process for oil shale, Ljungstrom was also a co-inventor, with his brother, of high-pressure steam boilers, steam turbines and steam locomotives.

He also was a sailing innovator and the Ljungstrom rig — an arrangement of sails — is named for him.

The land he used to produce oil from shale over the years has changed.

“The area revegetated naturally,” Vinegar said. “It’s now a park where the in-situ process was run.”

More oil shale coverage here and here.

Forecast news: ‘In some ways looking at woolly bears is as good as anything’ — Dan Bean

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The best tool for predicting Colorado winters is what’s called the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, says National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Ramey of Grand Junction. That tool tracks water temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean. Warm phases are El Niños, and cool ones La Niñas, and the two appear to dictate how the winter jet stream sets up in the United States. El Niños generally mean dry and warm conditions in northern Colorado, and cool and wet ones in southern Colorado, with the opposite being the case for La Niñas. But this year those ocean temperatures are near normal, or what Ramey calls ENSO-neutral, or “No Niño.”

Ramey considers such seasons “wild cards” in terms of forecasting. He has tried to determine what might happen this winter based on past No Niño seasons, 19 of which have occurred since 1950. On average, western Colorado snowfall those years was below the latest 30-year average. Looking just over the past 15 years, there have been three No Niño years, including last winter, and those seasons were either dry or semi-dry.

Examining things other ways, it doesn’t get any better.

Ramey also considered the fact that another factor in our winter weather, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, based on temperatures off Alaska, is in a cold phase. But in the case of nine No Niño seasons that had a cold PDO, snowfall was below average.

What about No Niño seasons that followed a previous No Niño season? Again, Ramey found nine out of the 19, and snowfall again was below normal.

Finally, Ramey took into account the encouraging sign of the wet fall we’ve been having. This time he found seven such instances out of the 19, all of which had below-average snowfall except, of course, in the fall.

“No matter how I tried to look at these 19 years, no matter how I sliced and diced it, it came in below normal,” he said.

Ramey is expecting a wet November and possibly December, a dry January and February and perhaps a wet March-April, especially if an El Niño arrives then.

A year ago, Ramey pointed to the fact that the last several previous No Niño years resulted in wet starts and finishes to the season, but with the midwinter being dry and the season usually ending up with below-average snow.

That led him to accurately predict that the same would happen last winter.

Now he said he’s making “basically the same forecast as last year because it worked.”

“I’m going to use that forecast until it doesn’t work again,” said Ramey, who is the first to acknowledge how hard it can be to get such winter forecasts right.

He notes that he didn’t even listen to himself, buying a ski pass to Powderhorn Mountain Resort and donating to the Grand Mesa Nordic Council for its trail grooming.

“I’ve literally put my money on a good snow season this year locally,” he said.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

If you’re wondering what this winter’s weather might hold in store, you might as well consult with a woolly bear. The width of the caterpillar’s reddish-brown middle stripe is said to indicate what winter holds in store (wide supposedly means mild, narrow means severe). The belief doesn’t appear to be backed up by much science, but it’s perhaps as good as what forecasters have to go on as they take their best guesses about what’s coming this winter, particularly as it pertains to that all-important snowfall.

As with last winter, the challenge is exacerbated by the fact that neither an El Niño nor La Niña weather pattern is taking shape. Those patterns generally can give forecasters some idea of what to expect in terms of snowfall in Colorado.

“That’s a little bit of a problem. It does decrease the overall confidence in a winter forecast,” said Dave Samuhel, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.

That lack of confidence might help explain the differing projections about what the Centennial State might expect in the coming months.

AccuWeather predicts a little better than normal chance for precipitation this winter. The prospects are particularly good in the center and western parts of the state, Samuhel said. He said temperatures could average a degree or two below normal as well, thanks both to the expected storms and to cold temperatures from Canada.

Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, sees a probability of below-normal precipitation for the season, but with some hope coming from signs that an El Niño may develop late in the season and boost March-April snowfall, at least in the southwest mountains. Much of his analysis stems from what the region has experienced in past No-Niño years (see related story).

But for anyone wondering, he also points out that the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting normal snowfall and “piercing cold” in Colorado and other nearby states including Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska.

Samuhel said AccuWeather’s forecast is based partly on an expectation of a more active pattern of storms originating over the Pacific and heading east. It also looks at similar years that resulted in above-normal precipitation for Grand Junction.

Meteorologist Klaus Wolter, who works for the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has issued what he has termed a “fairly optimistic” forecast of above-average snowpack by Jan. 1 for all but the Yampa and Rio Grande river basins. His forecast presentation also says early season snowpack “appears to have more bearing on the final runoff yield than any other season.”

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, can only hope Wolter’s optimism is borne out.

“We need a good snowpack and we need a couple years of good snowpack,” he said.

With winter approaching, a friend sent Ramey a picture of a woolly bear caterpillar with a center band of the same size as the outer ones.

“That’s supposed to mean something. I’ll tell you in May,” Ramey said.

Dan Bean, manager of the Palisade Insectary, hasn’t seen any woolly bear caterpillars this fall.

“Maybe that’s a bad sign,” he said.

He doesn’t get many signals from insects in terms of what specific weather might be coming. Every fall, they tend to dig into the soil.

“They don’t try to do any forecasting. … We know they all disappear and we know we’re not going to see them until next April or May regardless of what happens between now and then,” he said. “They’re playing it safe.”

He doesn’t claim any special insight regarding woolly bears’ reliability as winter prognosticators, but also points to the difficulty of such forecasting in general.

“In some ways looking at woolly bears is as good as anything,” he said.

Six cities eyeing gravel pit storage east of Pueblo at Stonewall Springs

Stonewall Springs Reservoir site via The Pueblo Chieftain
Stonewall Springs Reservoir site via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Developing reservoirs east of Pueblo remains an important component of a 2004 agreement to protect Arkansas River flows through the city. So far, the participants in the six-party intergovernmental agreement have relied on stop-gap measures to recover water, but recently there has been more activity that could lead to long-term changes.

The situation was reviewed last week by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which is a minor player in the effort, but shares some of the planning costs.

Colorado Springs, Aurora and the Pueblo Board of Water Works are the major players, and they have each had a role in the recovery of yield program. Fountain and the Southeastern district have smaller parts.

“This is an important regional effort to understand the allocation costs,” said Gary Bostrom, water chief for Colorado Springs Utilities, and a Southeastern board member.

The Pueblo water board took the lead in locating a reservoir site in 2005, trying to lease the Stonewall Springs site near the Pueblo Chemical Depot. When the cost proved too high, it was bought by private developers who proceeded with reservoir plans and a gravel mining operation.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has an agreement to purchase a reservoir being developed by Stonewall Springs LLC, and it could be a candidate for municipal storage, said Bob Hamilton, Southeastern’s engineering director. Cities could participate by contributing water or money.

A nearby reservoir plan by Two Rivers Water and Farming Co. on Southwest Farms appears less likely. Alan Hamel, chairman of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said Two Rivers’ loan application for the project will be “de-authorized” in November.

Both sets of reservoirs would be filled and emptied by gravity flows on the Excelsior Ditch.

A third plan is being tested by Colorado Springs that involves pumping between gravel pits just east of the Pueblo wastewater treatment plant.

Up until now, Colorado Springs and Aurora have bypassed the most water, recapturing some of it in a reservoir on the Holbrook Canal north of La Junta under an agreement brokered by Aurora.

More insfrastructure coverage here.

Floyd Ciruli’s presentation Public Perception of the Public Trust Doctrine is now available for download from the CWC website

Justian I first codifier of riparian rights
Justian I first codifier of riparian rights

Click here to go to the Colorado Water Congress’ Public Trust Special Project page to download the presentation.

Update: Here’s a report about the survey and the issue from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

A survey by the Colorado Water Congress indicates voters trust local water providers, support agricultural water values and generally favor the existing legal framework of water rights in Colorado. The group is gathering the information in preparation for the possible return of a public trust question on next year’s ballot.

“The public trust doctrine in Colorado would be unlimited employment for water lawyers,” Doug Kemper, executive director of CWC, told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District last week.

“The survey showed most people are uncertain, but (the public trust proposal) does have certain resonance,” Kemper said. “Most people are comfortable with local control of water.”

The CWC has been gearing up for a return bout with Richard Hamilton of Fairplay, who is planning on using the same ballot language that finally was approved in 2012. Hamilton said legal challenges by the CWC to the ballot title hurt chances for gathering signatures by reducing the time needed, so he withdrew the initiative last July. After Hamilton earlier this year announced his intentions to begin a campaign for 2014, CWC began a two-year, $325,000 program to counteract the effort.

Water groups, such as the Southeastern district or Pueblo Board of Water Works — even the CWC itself — are limited in their ability to campaign against the measure once it is on the ballot, Kemper said.

The survey provides arguments that might be made by private groups against the proposal. The Colorado Farm Bureau already has stepped up to fill that niche.

The public trust doctrine, relied on by some other states, could throw the state’s prior appropriation doctrine into chaos because it could elevate “public good” arguments above property rights.

The Colorado Constitution provides that those who first divert water to beneficial use have a senior claim to water, and gives domestic use preference over agricultural and manufacturing uses. Subsequent court cases have interpreted the laws to provide a strict pecking order of water rights within seven water districts in Colorado. Changes in the law in 1969 incorporated groundwater diversions with surface rights. Interstate compacts have added more restrictions about how water can be diverted within the state.

More public trust doctrine coverage here.