A small company that holds a federal lease to extract petroleum from oil shale reserves in western Colorado is taking a new approach to withdrawing crude oil from solid rock — one that it hopes will avoid groundwater contamination.
The process is “basically the same as steaming vegetables,” said Alan Burnham, chief technology officer for Rifle, Colo.-based American Shale Oil LLC.
Within weeks, the company will send a pool of oil down a well and blast it with hot fuel gas. The boiling oil will heat up an underground zone about 50 feet wide and 50 feet deep to more than 600 degrees.
Burnham described his company’s process Tuesday at an unconventional fuels conference at the University of Utah. It’s the latest in nearly a century of efforts by companies to unlock oil shale — a rock that contains fossilized algae, an immature form of oil that never received enough heat or pressure to produce liquid crude.
The University of Utah conference has been a showcase of varied efforts for the past six years to develop vast reserves of oil shale and tar sands across parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. This year’s conference follows a decision by the federal government to limit research and development projects after an initial round of leasing in 2007.
The Bureau of Land Management has tentatively decided to lease about 460,000 acres of oil shale deposits, down from 2 million acres that the Bush administration planned to offer across the Rocky Mountains.
The agency said it would open another 91,000 acres for development of gooey tar sands, down from 431,000 acres previously.