A Philosopher's Blog

Shale Oil

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2008

Oil ShaleAs oil prices close in on $150 per barrel and gas prices remain over $4 per gallon, the cries for solutions grow ever louder.

President Bush recently claimed that shale oil can provide a solution to our oil woes. “Shale oil” is something of a misnomer. The rock in question is a sedimentary rock but need not be shale. Also, the oil in the rock is not crude oil. It can be processed into a form of crude oil and then further refined.

America has significant amounts of oil shale  located in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Some estimate that about 800 billion barrels of oil could be recovered from the shale, which exceeds the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia by three times. Obviously, if that oil could be extracted, then America would have  a significant source of oil. And, of course, the oil companies would have a significant source of new profits.

As per the usual political formula, it has been claimed that shale oil is not being exploited because regulation and red tape stand in the way. The solution is the stock proposal: the regulations need to be dealt with so as to allow American energy corporations to step in and do what they do best (that is, make vast profits by exploiting public resources).

Also following the usual formula, environmental groups are generally opposed to this proposal. This is because exploiting shale oil typically involves strip mining and that can involve significant environmental damage. The replies to the environmental concerns are the usual ones about the need for energy, the need to be free of foreign oil and so forth.

One factor that Bush and his fellows seem to be ignoring is the fact that the main obstacle to exploiting shale oil is not red tape but reality. To be specific, creating a system to commercially exploit shale oil is a significant challenge and one that some experts estimate will take 10-20 years to develop. Hence, shale oil cannot be a solution to our current oil woes. It might, however, provide some solution to our future oil woes.

In addition to the technical challenge, there is also the matter of cost. The cheapest way to get oil is the stereotypical oil well-you drill a hole into the earth and liquid oil comes out. Obviously, digging up rock and processing it into oil will be more expensive than pumping liquid oil from the ground. Because of this, it might seem more cost effective to focus instead on alternative energy.

However, when calculating the cost of an energy source it is important to consider the total cost of that energy. One thing that people often overlook is that most of our energy technology is built around oil. If shale oil can be converted to fuels that can be utilized in current cars, furnaces and such, then this would make shale oil less costly in this regards than converting over to a different source of energy. For example, my truck runs on gas. In order to use electricity as a “fuel” for it, I’d have to replace the engine. That would be rather expensive and I’d probably be better off paying more for gas derived from shale oil.

Obviously enough, the situation also raises significant moral concerns.

On one hand, there are good reasons to exploit such a resource. First, oil is the basic source of energy for our economy and way of life. Assuming that employment and the modern way of life are desirable goods, then we have a moral reason to exploit the shale oil. Of course, people have been critical of this way of life, so this can be challenged. Second, to be cynical and hateful, it could be argued that the recent exports of the Middle East have been oil and terror (in the past, the Middle east made significant contributions to mathematics, science and philosophy). Naturally enough, the importance of the Middle East and the funding for terror and political extremism rests heavily on oil. If the world had another large source of oil, that would make the Middle East far less significant and provide less funding for political turmoil. While it might be regarded as selfish, with a vast oil reserve of our own we could leave the Middle East to its own devices-either to work things out or go out in a blaze of nuclear fire. Naturally, we’d still need to keep and eye on the Middle East, but this could be a form of containment rather than involvement. In reply, some might regard this approach as morally reprehensible.

On the other hand, there are good reasons not to exploit oil shale. The first one is that oil shale will harm the environment. In addition to the damage inflicted by strip mining, there is the obvious fact that shale oil is still oil and will pollute the environment like conventional oil. The second one is that focusing on oil shale could divert effort and funding away from better sources of energy, thus leaving us worse off than we could be. The third concern is that the exploitation of oil shale could turn into yet another mess for the American taxpayer. If the usual pattern is followed, the companies that plan to exploit the shale oil will receive significant largess from the government.

My concluding thoughts are that oil shale should be seriously considered. However, the situation reminds me a bit of drug addition: imagine a junkie who is running out of her drug of choice. Rather than using the opportunity to clean up her life, she instead hopes to find a similar drug and keep going on the same path.

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One Response

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  1. Andrew Peters said, on June 25, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Hi there,

    I was just stopping by your blog today and thought you did a really great job with this topic even if we don’t quite agree on the course of action. That said, it seemed like you might be interested in some of the work we’re doing on oil shale development here at The Wilderness Society. It has the makings of another great blog post, and I’d urge you to check it out at:

    1) http://wilderness.org/NewsRoom/Statement/20080610.cfm

    and

    2) http://wilderness.org/OurIssues/Energy/Oil_Gas_Drilling_and_Gasoline_Prices.cfm

    If you’d like to get in touch with me, feel free to contact at the e-mail address I provided.

    Thanks,

    Andy


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