Tag Archives: shale oil

Energy Self-Sufficiency v. Environmental Costs: Argentina

Lake Huechulaufquen, Neuquén basin in southwest Argentina. image from wikipedia

Despite the precipitous fall in global oil prices (from 110 dollars in 2014 to under 50 dollars in 2015), Argentina has continued to follow its strategy of producing unconventional shale oil, although in the short term there could be problems attracting the foreign investment needed to exploit the Vaca Muerta shale deposit,  Argentina’s energy trade deficit climbed to almost seven billion dollars in 2014, partly due to the decline in the country’s conventional oil reserves.

Eliminating that deficit depends on the development of Vaca Muerta, a major shale oil and gas deposit in the Neuquén basin in southwest Argentina. At least 10 billion dollars a year in investment are needed over the next few years to tap into this source of energy…

“In the short term, it would be best to import, rather than exploit the shale resources,” Víctor Bronstein, the director of the Centre of Studies on Energy, Policy and Society, told IPS.“But taking a more strategic view, investment in and development of these resources must be kept up, since oil prices are going to start climbing again in the near future and we have to have the capacity to produce our own resources when that happens,” he added.  That is how President Cristina Fernández saw things, he said, when she set a domestic price of 72 dollars a barrel – “40 percent above its international value” – among other production incentives that were adopted to shore up Vaca Muerta.

According to the state oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), Vaca Muerta multiplied Argentina’s oil reserves by a factor of 10 and its gas reserves by a factor of 40, which will enable this country not only to be self-sufficient in energy but also to become a net exporter of oil and gas. YPF has been assigned 12,000 of the 30,000 sq km of the shale oil and gas deposit in the province of Neuquén.

The company admits that to exploit the deposit, it will need to partner with transnational corporations capable of providing capital. It has already done so with the U.S.-based Chevron in the Loma Campana deposit, where it had projected a price of 80 dollars a barrel this year….YPF has also signed agreements for the joint exploitation of shale deposits with Malaysia’s Petronas and Dow Chemical of the United States, while other transnational corporations have announced their intention to invest in Vaca Muerta.

Excerpts from Fabiana Frayssinet, Plunging Oil Prices Won’t Kill Vaca Muerta, PS, Apr. 10, 2015

Economics and Environmental Impact of Oil Shale Production

oil shale combustion. Image from wikipedia

[A] second shale revolution is in prospect, in which cleaner and more efficient ways are being found to squeeze the oil and gas out of the stone. The Jordanian government said on June 12th that it had reached agreement with Enefit, an Estonian company, and its partners on a $2.1 billion contract to build a 540MW shale-fuelled power station. Frustratingly for Jordan, as it eyes its rich, oil-drenched Gulf neighbours, the country sits on the world’s fifth-largest oil-shale reserves but has to import 97% of its energy needs.

In Australia, Queensland Energy Resources, another oil-shale company, has just applied for permission to upgrade its demonstration plant to a commercial scale. Production is expected to start in 2018. Questerre Energy, a Canadian company, also said recently that it would start work on a commercial demonstration project, in Utah in the United States.

In all these projects, the shale is “cooked” cheaply, cleanly and productively in oxygen-free retorts to separate much of the oil and gas. In Enefit’s process the remaining solid is burned to raise steam, which drives a generator. So the process produces electricity, natural gas (a big plus in Estonia, a country otherwise dependent on Russian supplies) and synthetic crude, which can be used to make diesel and aviation fuel. The leftover ash can be used to make cement. Enefit’s chief executive, Sandor Liive, says his plants, the first of which started production in December 2012, should be profitable so long as oil prices stay above $75 a barrel (North Sea Brent oil was around $113 this week).

Although the new methods of exploiting the rock are cleaner than old ones, environmentalists still have plenty to worry about. Oil shale varies hugely in quality. Estonia’s is clean, Jordan’s has a high sulphur content, Utah’s is laden with arsenic. Like opencast coal mining, digging up oil shale scars the landscape. Enefit has solved that in green-minded Estonia, by landscaping and replacing the topsoil. Other countries may be less choosy.

Some of the world’s biggest energy firms have also experimented with mining and processing oil shale, only to give up, after finding that it took so much energy that the sums did not add up. However, Shell says it is making progress with a new method it is trying, also in Jordan, in which the shale is heated underground with an electric current to extract the oil.

These rival technologies have yet to prove their reliability at large scale—and they are far from cheap. Mr Liive reckons it will cost $100m to get a pilot project going in Utah (where his firm has bought a disused oil-shale mine), and another $300m to reach a commercial scale. A fall in the oil price could doom the industry, as happened in the 1980s when a lot of shale mines went out of business…America this week loosened its ban on crude exports. If the second shale revolution succeeds, it will have a lot more oil to sell.

Oil shale: Flaming rocks, Economist, June  28, 2014, at 58

Fracking in Europe: prohibited

horizontal drilling

Shale gas and oil are propelling America to energy self-sufficiency and giving its economy a handy boost. Europe’s shale-gas deposits are said almost to match those across the Atlantic..

The mismatch between the hope and reality for European shale gas was neatly summarised by a deal sealed on January 24th that will allow Shell to probe Ukraine for unconventional gas. Ukrainian politicians talked of a $10 billion investment. Shell took a more cautious line. The firm certainly hopes to find plenty of gas in eastern Ukraine. But it will first do some seismic testing and sink 15 test wells. If the results are disappointing it could, like ExxonMobil in Poland, walk away.

It is too early to tell whether Europe’s shale beds will really prove as bountiful as America’s. Only a handful of test wells have been sunk. Exxon may have quit Poland, the country where exploration has gone furthest, but other firms are having more joy. Determining which countries might enjoy a bonanza of cheap gas is highly speculative, a recent report by Deutsche Bank points out: many things are in flux, including extraction technologies and production rates.

Adding to the guesswork is a host of problems “above ground”, particularly in western Europe. With the exception of Britain, which recently lifted a moratorium on test drilling, progress is slow. The French are implacably opposed to shale gas. French environmentalists have taken a particular dislike to “fracking”, the technique for releasing gas from rock beds that uses a cocktail of chemicals, sand and high-pressure water. François Hollande, France’s president, has promised that a fracking ban, imposed by his predecessor, would last for his entire five-year term.The Netherlands and Luxembourg have also suspended drilling for shale gas. Attempts to do the same in Germany were defeated in parliament in December. But North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most promising region for shale gas, suspended fracking last September pending research on the risks involved. In Austria the cost of complying with environmental regulations makes shale gas uneconomic.

Farther east, public disapproval is not as fierce, although the Czech Republic recently introduced a moratorium, Bulgaria has one in place and Romania only recently lifted its ban. Shale gas offers the promise of jobs and revenues. Even more important, it could mitigate the heavy reliance on gas imports from Russia. Indeed, the country signalled its disapproval—and boosted its reputation as an energy bully—as soon as the deal between Shell and Ukraine was signed. It sent its neighbour a bill for $7 billion for unused gas, arguing that Ukraine is contractually obliged to pay for it.

Oil companies will send people and equipment where the ride is easiest and the deals are tastiest, which explains why drilling rigs are scarce in Europe. Nearly 1,200 of them scoot around America’s shale beds; in Poland they number only half a dozen.

Excerpt, Unconventional gas in Europe: Frack to the future, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 53