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Oil at $100 a barrel - what now?

The Baltimore Sun

At $100 a barrel, we're in the midst of an oil crisis. Biofuels and hybrids will not save us in time. But oil shale might.

Currently, biofuels are not economically competitive with conventional crude. Even if they someday become competitive, it will take decades to allocate enough land to biofuel feedstock production before biofuels make a meaningful contribution to America's energy recipe. As for hybrids, they won't penetrate the U.S. market in large quantities for many years.

The only real option America has if it hopes to free itself from the shackles of foreign petro-dependency in the near future is to find new sources of domestic petroleum. Oil shale is, perhaps, the most promising option.

Oil shale is a type of rock that has a petroleum precursor called kerogen trapped inside it. This kerogen can be extracted and upgraded into liquid fuels such as synthetic gasoline and synthetic diesel. The U.S. has the largest oil shale resources in the world. According to the Rand Corp., as much as 1.1 trillion barrels of synthetic petroleum could be recovered from the Green River Formation that straddles Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. That is approximately equal to all of the proven reserves of conventional oil on Earth.

Promoting the development of an American oil shale industry would help keep hundreds of billions of dollars in the hands of Americans and out of the hands of Middle Eastern governments. Moreover, it would stimulate massive job growth in America and increase tax revenue - money that could be used to reduce the deficit, improve our schools and fund medical research.

The primary objection to oil shale development relates to greenhouse gases. Indeed, a large-scale U.S. oil shale industry would increase greenhouse gas emissions, but not by a significant amount.

If published reports are remotely accurate, shale oil now appears to be significantly cheaper than conventional crude. In addition, shale oil appears to be significantly cheaper than any biofuel or coal-to-liquids solution. For the first time in history, America's vast oil shale resources appear to be economically viable. It would be a shame not to develop them.

J. Thomas Andrews is a venture capitalist and Maryland resident. His e-mail is j.thomas.andrews@gmail.com.

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