When it comes to energy policy, those who make the laws in Washington couldn’t pass an IQ test — or at least that's one man's opinion.
Energy sustainability guru Randy Udall of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) says many of the ideas floating around the Beltway these days make little sense. Udall points to talk of developing oil shale sources as a shining example of an intellectual disconnect when it come to energy policies and energy realities. For those unfamiliar, oil shale is a substance that can substitute for crude oil once it is produced from organic-rich sedimentary rock that contains chemical compounds. The United States is rich in this resource, but developing it is more costly — both environmentally and economically — than crude oil.
Udall articulated his points in an op-ed last week that highlights a history of inaccurate rhetoric when it comes to producing oil shale in the United States. Here are five of Udall’s points:
Fool’s gold and cow manure
Just because you hear a lot about something doesn’t mean it’s a viable option, according to Udall. When describing the recent uptick in oil shale rhetoric, Udall says, “Oil shale is the world’s most misunderstood resource, the petroleum equivalent of fool’s gold. Although there are trillions of tons of it around the globe, oil shale currently provides only one-ten-thousandths of global energy, less than cow manure.”
Permanently just out of reach
Like the girl you had a crush on in high school, the car you could never afford or the perfect wave you searched for from your surfboard, oil shale is a hopeful quest with hopeless results, says Udall. While those inside the Beltway continue to speak of the source as a viable option for our energy future, Udall says that those in “shale-rich” states are much more grounded. “Half the world’s oil shale is in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, but locals are not holding our breath waiting for its arrival. Like a mirage on the highway, oil shale recedes as you approach it. When a barrel of oil was selling for $1, oil shale promoters said we’ll be ready when it hits $3. When petroleum was $10, oil shale would make sense at $30.”
A century of being ‘around the corner’
Udall is quick to note that plenty of folks have said oil shale is the next big thing for quite some time. “It’s been ‘ten years away’ for a century,” he writes, and he has the newspaper clippings to back it up. "’Scientists forecast that within three years they can demonstrate a practical method of [oil shale] operation,’ said one Kentucky newspaper in 1946.” Then Udall points to a comment from an official within the Department of Interior in 1953 who said, “Before too many years, oil shale will 'undoubtedly' play an important role in meeting growing fuel demands. Three years later it was Reese Taylor of the Union Oil Company who, according to Udall, said, “The oil shale reserves in Utah and Colorado are going to be a lifesaver.” Hopefully, no one was actually counting on oil shale to save their life in 1956.
A matter of supply and demand
But what if we just bit the bullet as a country and said oil shale was the way to go? After all, we subsidize the richest oil companies in the world with billions of dollars of government funding. To a far lesser extent, taxpayer dollars go towards developing alternative energy sources like wind, solar and ethanol. So what if we did that for oil shale? Not so smart, says Udall. “With billions in taxpayer handouts and government support, oil shale might provide 100,000 barrels a day ten years from now, but that’s as much as we now consume every eight minutes,” he writes. To put the realities of oil shale in a better perspective, Udall explains that “increasing the woeful fuel efficiency of America’s automobiles by just two more miles per gallon would save twenty times as much fuel each year, and save consumers more than $50 billion at the pump.”
Conservation is the key
So if the panacea of oil shale isn’t the solution to our energy problems, then what is? Not surprisingly, the head of CORE says we need to focus on saving energy, not just producing more of it. “An aggressive national commitment to fuel efficiency — not the token on-again, off-again policies of the past — is not optional, it’s urgent and inevitable,” writes Udall, who adds that “drill, baby, drill” will get us only so far. “We are drilling like crazy. More than half the drilling rigs in the world are at work in North America. With oil exports peaking, we need to get real about energy conservation.”
That's one man’s unabashed feelings about the legitimacy of developing our oil shale resources. In short, Udall says developing the resource is not economically worth it, not logistically feasible and simply not our best option. What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.