The Environmental Impact of Shale Oil Extraction

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 5 May, 2010 at

After the large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, new regulations will limit the production of oil from offshore oil rigs. One alternative method of oil extraction is producing oil from oil shale, rock formations that are present in states such as North Dakota. Shale oil extraction produces its own environmental impact.

Extracting the oil from the rock formations requires heating of the oil, usually using oil fuel from other locations. This method uses nonrenewable sources of energy and adds to the carbon pollution in the atmosphere. There is also a risk of the extraction chemicals, excess petroleum, and runoff leaking into the groundwater. Locations such as Alberta, Montana, and the Dakotas already contain large areas where water is not plentiful.

According to the Department of Energy, shale oil extraction produces air pollution. High temperatures are necessary to perform the extraction, and this releases toxic gases into the atmosphere. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides are produced, leading to acid rain, smog, and other particulate pollution. The clouds of gases are released in wilderness areas, including areas near national parks such as Yellowstone.

The Green River Formation holds large quantities of shale oil, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. This formation spans several states in the Mountain West. It is attractive because the amount of oil that may be recoverable is much larger than the reserves reported by other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The main reason why it is not being produced in large quantities is the extraction cost, which includes the extra energy necessary to produce the oil.

Process improvements are in use that address some of the extraction issues. A process known as gas combustion retorting requires much less water to extract oil, according to Unconventional Fuels. This method is used in locations such as Brazil where water is scarce, and Scotland where environmental regulations are stronger than they are in the United States. The improved methods still produce additional emissions, so some method of carbon capture is required to avoid additional environmental impact.

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