Oil Shale Committee-EMD

If you would like to learn more about oil shale or to receive information on oil shale, or on activities of the EMD Oil Shale Committee, join the EMD.

Alan K. Burnham Alan K. Burnham Chair 2013-2019
Lauren P. Birgenheier Lauren P. Birgenheier Vice-Chair Academic 2016-2019 University of Utah
Justin Edward Birdwell Justin Edward Birdwell Vice-Chair Government 2016-2019 U.S. Geological Survey
Mariela Araujo Mariela Araujo Vice-Chair Industry 2016-2019 Shell
Jeremy Boak MEMBER 2016-2019 Colorado School of Mines
Introduction

Oil shales ranging from Cambrian to Tertiary in age occur in many parts of the world. Deposits range from small occurrences of little or no economic value to those of enormous size that occupy thousands of square miles and contain many billions of barrels of potentially extractable shale oil. Total world resources of oil shale are conservatively estimated at 2.6 trillion barrels. However, petroleum-based crude oil is cheaper to produce today than shale oil because of the additional costs of mining and extracting the energy from oil shale. Because of these higher costs, only a few deposits of oil shale are currently being exploited in China, Brazil, and Estonia. However, with the continuing decline of petroleum supplies, accompanied by increasing costs of petroleum-based products, oil shale presents opportunities for supplying some of the fossil energy needs of the world in the years ahead.

Definition of oil shale

Most oil shales are fine-grained sedimentary rocks containing relatively large amounts of organic matter from which significant amounts of shale oil and combustible gas can be extracted by destructive distillation. Included in most definitions of "oil shale", either stated or implied, is the potential for the profitable extraction of shale oil and combustible gas or for burning as a fuel. Oil shale differs from coal whereby the organic matter in coal has a lower atomic H:C ratio and the OM:MM ratio of coal is usually greater than 4.75:5.

Origin of oil shale

Oil shales were deposited in a wide variety of environments including freshwater to saline ponds and lakes, epicontinental marine basins and related subtidal shelves. They were also deposited in shallow ponds or lakes associated with coal-forming peat in limnic and coastal swamp depositional environments. It is not surprising, therefore, that oil shales exhibit a wide range in organic and mineral composition. Most oil shales contain organic matter derived from varied types of marine and lacustrine algae, with some debris of land plants, depending upon the depositional environment and sediment sources.

Classification of oil shales

Figure 1. Classification of organic-rich rocks (from Hutton, 1987).
Figure 1. Classification of organic-rich rocks (from Hutton, 1987).
Oil shales, until recent years, have been an enigmatic group of rocks. Many oil shales were named after a locality, mineral or algal content, or type of product the shale yielded. Following are some names applied to oil shales, a few of which are still in use today:

  • Algal coal
  • Alum shale
  • Bituminite
  • Boghead coal
  • Cannel coal
  • Gas coal
  • Kerosene shale
  • Kukersite
  • Schistes bitumineux
  • Stellarite
  • Tasmanite
  • Torbanite
  • Wollongongite

Figure 2. Photomicrograph of the lacustrine early Permian Kostalov oil shale bed from a locality 19 km east of Turnov, Czech Republic. The image was taken under UV/blue-fluorescing light of a polished specimen cut perpendicular to bedding. The large bright-yellow fluorescing body (Botryococcus?), about 84 mm long, lies in a dark brown matrix of bituminite and mineral matter containing wavy stringers of pale-yellow fluorescing lamalginite. The oil shale yields about 200 liters of shale oil per metric ton.
Figure 2. Photomicrograph of the lacustrine early Permian Kostalov oil shale bed from a locality 19 km east of Turnov, Czech Republic. The image was taken under UV/blue-fluorescing light of a polished specimen cut perpendicular to bedding. The large bright-yellow fluorescing body (Botryococcus?), about 84 mm long, lies in a dark brown matrix of bituminite and mineral matter containing wavy stringers of pale-yellow fluorescing lamalginite. The oil shale yields about 200 liters of shale oil per metric ton.
Hutton divided the organic-rich sedimentary rocks into three groups. These groups are (1) humic coals and carbonaceous shales, (2) bitumen-impregnated rock (tar sands and petroleum reservoir rocks), and (3) oil shale. On the basis of the depositional environment, three basic groups of oil shales were recognized: terrestrial, lacustrine, and marine. Terrestrial oil shales include those composed of lipid-rich organic matter such as resins, spores, waxy cuticles, and corky tissue of roots and stems of vascular terrestrial plants commonly found in coal-forming swamps and bogs. Lacustrine oil shales are those containing lipid-rich organic matter derived from algae that lived in freshwater, brackish, or saline lakes. Marine oil shale are composed of lipid-rich organic matter derived from marine algae, acritarchs (unicellular microorganisms of questionable origin), and marine dinoflagellates (one-celled organisms with a flagellum).

History of the oil shale industry

The use of oil shale can be traced back to ancient times. By the seventeenth century, oil shales were being exploited in several countries. One of the interesting oil shales is the Swedish alum shale of Cambrian and Ordovician age which is noted for its alum content and high concentrations of metals including uranium and vanadium. As early as 1637, the alum shales were roasted over wood fires to extract potassium aluminum sulfate, a salt used in tanning leather and for fixing colors in fabrics. Late in the 1800s, the alum shales were retorted on a small scale for hydrocarbons. Production continued through World War II but ceased in 1966 because of the availability of cheaper supplies of petroleum crude oil. In addition to hydrocarbons, some hundreds of metric tons of uranium and small amounts of vanadium were extracted from the Swedish alum shales in the 1960s (Andersson and others, 1985, p. 8).

Figure 3. Unocal oil shale facility, Parachute Creek, Colorado.  View of the retort on the mine bench at the level of the Mahogany Ledge of the Green River Formation which was the source of the oil shale processed in the plant.
Figure 3. Unocal oil shale facility, Parachute Creek, Colorado. View of the retort on the mine bench at the level of the Mahogany Ledge of the Green River Formation which was the source of the oil shale processed in the plant.
An oil shale deposit at Autun, France, was exploited commercially as early as 1839. The Scottish oil shale industry began about 1859, the year that Colonel Drake drilled his pioneer well at Titusville, Pennsylvania. As many as 20 beds of oil shale were mined at different times. Mining continued during the 1800s and by 1881 oil shale production had reached one million metric tons per year. With the exception of the World War II years, between 1 and 4 million metric tons of oil shale were mined yearly in Scotland from 1881 to 1955 when production began to decline, then ceased in 1962. Canada produced some shale oil from deposits in New Brunswick and Ontario in the mid-1800s.

Common products made from oil shale from these early operations were kerosene and lamp oil, paraffin, fuel oil, lubricating oil and grease, naphtha, illuminating gas, and the fertilizer chemical, ammonium sulfate. With the introduction of the mass production of automobiles and trucks in the early 1900s, the supposed shortage of gasoline encouraged the exploitation of oil shale deposits for transportation fuels. Many companies were formed to develop the oil shale deposits of the Green River Formation in western United States, especially in Colorado. Oil placer claims were filed by the thousands on public lands in western United States. The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 removed oil shale and certain other fossil fuels and minerals on public lands administered by the Federal Government from the status of locatable to leaseable minerals. Under this act, the ownership of the public mineral lands is retained by the Federal Government and the mineral, e.g., oil shale, is made available for development by private industry under the terms of a mineral lease.

Figure 4. Oil shale, in millions of metric tons, mined from deposits in Estonia, Russia, Scotland, Brazil, and China between 1880 and 2000.  Data for Estonia and Russia from Enno Reinsalu (personal comm., 2000).  Data for China from Jialin Qian (personal comm., 2000).
Figure 4. Oil shale, in millions of metric tons, mined from deposits in Estonia, Russia, Scotland, Brazil, and China between 1880 and 2000. Data for Estonia and Russia from Enno Reinsalu (personal comm., 2000). Data for China from Jialin Qian (personal comm., 2000).
Several oil shale leases on Federal lands in Colorado and Utah were issued to private companies in the 1970s. Large-scale mine facilities were developed on the properties and experimental underground "modified in situ" retorting was carried out on one of the lease tracts. However, all work has ceased and the leases have been relinquished to the Federal Government. Unocal operated the last large-scale experimental mining and retorting facility in western United States from 1980 until its closure in 1991. Unocal produced 4.5 million barrels of oil from oil shale averaging 34 gallons of shale oil per ton of rock over the life of the project (Figure 3).


The tonnages of oil shale mined in Estonia, Russia, Scotland, Brazil, and China for the period 1880 to 2000 are shown in Figure 4. By the late 1930s, total yearly production of oil shale for the five countries had risen to above 5 million metric tons. Although production fell in the 1940s during World War II, it continued to rise for the next 35 years, peaking in 1979-80 when in excess of 46 million metric tons of oil shale per year was mined, two-thirds of which was in Estonia. Assuming an average shale oil content of 100 liters per metric ton, 46 million metric tons of oil shale would be equivalent to 184,000 tons of shale oil. Of interest is a secondary period of high production reached by China in 1958-1960 when as much as 24 million metric tons of oil shale per year were mined at Fushun.

The oil shale industry as represented by the five countries in Figure 4 maintained a combined yearly production of oil shale in excess of 30 million metric tons from 1963 to 1992, a period of 29 years. From the peak year of 1981, yearly production of oil shale steadily declined to a low of about 15 million metric tons in 1999. Most of this decline is due to the gradual downsizing of the Estonian oil shale industry. This decline is not due to diminishing supplies of oil shale but is due to the fact that oil shale cannot compete economically with petroleum as a fossil energy resource. On the contrary, the potential oil shale resources of the world have barely been touched.

Although information about many oil shale deposits is rudimentary and much exploratory drilling and analytical work needs to be done, the potential resources of oil shale in the world are enormous. An evaluation of world oil shale resources is made difficult because of the numerous ways by which the resources are assessed. Gravimetric, volumetric, and heating values have all been used to determine the oil shale grade. For example, oil shale grade is expressed in liters per metric ton or gallons per short ton, weight percent shale oil, kilocalories of energy per kilogram of oil shale or Btu (British thermal units), and others. If the grade of oil shale is given in volumetric measure (liters of shale oil per metric ton), the density of the oil must be known to convert liters to tons of shale oil.

Byproducts can add considerable value to some oil shale deposits. Uranium, vanadium, zinc, alumina, phosphate, sodium carbonate minerals, ammonium sulfate, and sulfur add potential value to some deposits. The spent shale obtained from retorting may also find use in the construction industry as cement. Germany and China have used oil shale as a source of cement. Other potential byproducts from oil shale include specialty carbon fibers, adsorbent carbons, carbon black, bricks, construction and decorative building blocks, soil additives, fertilizers, rock wool insulating materials, and glass. Many of these byproducts are still in the experimental stage, but the economic potential for their manufacture seems large.

Resources of oil shale for selected deposits from around the world are listed in Table 1. Many of these resources have been little explored and much exploratory drilling needs to be done to determine their potential. Some deposits have been fairly well explored by drilling and analyses. These include the Green River oil shale in western United States, the Tertiary deposits in Queensland, Australia, the deposits in Sweden and Estonia, the El-Lajjun deposit in Jordan, perhaps those in France, Germany and Brazil, and possibly several in Russia. The remaining deposits, as well as others not listed in Table 1, are poorly known and still further study and analysis are needed to adequately determine their resource potential.

COUNTRY DEPOSIT AGE  OIL
(10^6 bbls)
Thailand Li Tertiary 1
Canada

 

Rosevale Mississippian 3
Austria     8
Canada Dover Mississippian 14
New Zealand     19
Chile     21
Turkey Burhaniye Tertiary 28
Madagascar     32
Turkey Bahcecik Tertiary 35
Australia NS Wales Permian 40
Turkey Ulukisla Tertiary 42
Australia Mersey River Permian 48
Poland     48
Hungary     56
Australia Mt. Coolon Tertiary 72
Australia Alpha Permian 80
Bulgaria     125
China Fushun Tertiary 127
Turkey Golpazari Tertiary 128
S. Africa     130
Turkey Hatidag Tertiary 203
USA Elko Formation Tertiary 228
Australia Byfield Tertiary 249
Canada Albert Mines Mississippian 269
Spain     280
Armenia Aramus Tertiary 305
Turkey Seyitomer Tertiary 349
Turkey Beypazari Tertiary 398
Argentina     400
Jordan Sultani Cretaceous 482
Sweden Narke Cambrian 594
Australia Leigh Creek Triassic 600
Luxembourg   Jurassic 675
Australia Lowmead Tertiary 740
Turkey Goynuk Tertiary 804
Jordan El-Lajjun Cretaceous 821
Canada Stellarton Basin Penn-Permian 1,174
Sweden Oland Cambrian 1,188
Egypt Abu Tartur area Cretaceous 1,200
Canada Favel-Boyne Fms. Cretaceous 1,250
Australia Herbert Creek Basin Tertiary 1,530
Sweden Vastergotland Cambrian 1,537
Australia Julia Creek Cretaceous 1,700
Brazil Paraiba Valley Tertiary 2,000
Burma   Tertiary 2,000
Germany     2,000
China Maoming Tertiary 2,271
Australia Rundle Tertiary 2,600
Sweden Ostergotland Cambrian 2,795
Kazakhstan     2,837
Australia Stuart Tertiary 3,000
Australia Nagoorin Basin Tertiary 3,170
Jordan Juref-Ed-Darawish Cretaceous 3,325
United Kingdom     3,500
Estonia Estonia kukersite Ordovician 3,900
Israel     4,000
Australia Duaringa (upper unit) Tertiary 4,100
Australia Yaamba Tertiary 4,100
Egypt Safaga-Quseir area Cretaceous 4,500
Thailand Mae Sot Tertiary 6,400
France     7,000
Jordan El-Thamed Cretaceous 7,432
Jordan Attarat Um Ghudran Cretaceous 8,103
Australia Condor Tertiary 9,700
Italy     10,000
Morocco Timahdit Cretaceous 11,236
Canada Collingwood Ordovician 12,000
China (excluding Maoming and Fushun) 13,600
Jordan Wadi Maghar Cretaceous 14,009
Morocco Tarfaya (zone R) Cretaceous 42,145
Italy Sicily   63,000
Brazil Irati Formation Permian 80,000
Zaire     100,000
USA Heath Fm Mississippian 180,000
USA Eastern Devonian shale Devonian 189,000
USA Phosphoria Formation

 

Permian

 

250,000
USA Green River Formation Tertiary 1,499,000
     
    Total 2,570,756

The deposits listed in Table 1 are ranked in order of their size in millions of barrels. The grade of oil shale is not given in the table, but for most of those listed it can be assumed that the deposits will yield at least 40 liters of shale oil per metric ton of shale by Fischer assay. By far the largest known deposit is the Green River oil shale in western United States which contains a total estimated resource of nearly 1.5 trillion barrels. In Colorado alone, the total resource reaches one trillion barrels of oil. The Devonian black shales of eastern United States are estimated at 189 billion barrels which is considerably less than that reported by Duncan and Swanson (1965). Only those resources that are rich enough and close enough to the surface to be open-pit mined are reported in Table 1 (Matthews, 1983). Other important deposits include those of Estonia, Brazil, Australia, Jordan, and Morocco.

The total world resource of oil shale is estimated at 2.6 trillion barrels. This figure is considered to be conservative in view of the fact that oil shale resources of some countries are not reported and other deposits have not been fully investigated. On the other hand, several deposits, such as those of the Heath and Phosphoria Formations and portions of the Swedish alum oil shale, have been degraded by geothermal heating. Therefore, the resources reported are probably too high and somewhat misleading.

Recoverable resources

The amount of shale oil that can be recovered from a given deposit depends upon many factors. Some deposits or portions thereof, such as large areas of the Devonian black shales in eastern United States, may be too deeply buried to economically mine in the foreseeable future. Surface land uses may greatly restrict the availability of some oil shale deposits for development, especially those in the industrial western countries. The bottom line in developing a large oil shale industry will be governed by the price of petroleum-based crude oil. When the price of shale oil is comparable to that of crude oil because of diminishing resources of crude, then shale oil may find a place in the world fossil energy mix.

For a complete version of the above, see the Committee’s Annual Report (May 2013) on the EMD Members Only page (log-in required).

Selected References

Andersson, Astrid, and others, 1985, The Scandinavian alum shales: Sveriges Geologiska Undersökning, Avhandlingar Och Uppsatser I A4, Ser. Ca, nr. 56, 50 p.

Bauert, Heikki, 1994, The Baltic oil shale basin: an overview in Proceedings, 1993 Eastern Oil Shale Symposium: University of Kentucky Institute for Mining and Minerals Research, p. 411-421.

Crisp, P.T., and others, 1987, Australian oil shale: a compendium of geological and chemical data: CSIRO Inst. Energy and Earth Sciences, Division of Fossil Fuels, North Ryde, NSW, Australia, 109 p.

Duncan, D.C., and Swanson, V.E., Organic-rich shale of the United States and world land areas: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 523, 30 p.

Dyni, J.R., and others, Comparison of hydroretorting, Fischer assay, and Rock-Eval analyses of some world oil shales in Proceedings 1989 Eastern Oil Shale Symposium: University of Kentucky Institute for Mining and Minerals Research, p. 270-286.

Hutton, A.C., 1987, Petrographic classification of oil shales: International Journal of Coal Geology, v. 8, p. 203-231.

Johnson, E.A., 1990, Geology of the Fushun coalfield, Liaoning Province, People's Republic of China: International Journal of Coal Geology, v. 14, p. 217-236.

Macauley, George, 1981, Geology of the oil shale deposits of Canada: Geological Survey of Canada Open File Report OF 754, 155 p.

Matthews, R.D., 1983, The Devonian-Mississippian oil shale resource of the United States in Gary, J.H., [ed.], Sixteenth Oil Shale Symposium Proceedings: Colorado School of Mines Press, p. 14-25.

Padula, V.T., 1969 Oil shale of Permian Iratí Formation: Bulletin American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 53, p. 591-602.

Pitman, J.K., and others, 1989, Thickness, oil-yield, and kriged resource estimates for the Eocene Green River Formation, Piceance Creek Basin, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Oil and Gas Investigations Chart OC-132.

Russell, P.L., 1990, Oil shales of the world, their, origin, occurrence, and exploitation: Pergamon Press, New York, 753 p.

Smith, J.W., 1980, Oil shale resources of the United States: Colorado School of Mines Mineral and Energy Resources, v. 23, no. 6, 30 p.

If you would like to learn more about oil shales or to receive information on oil shales, or on activities of the EMD Oil Shale Committee, join the EMD. If you are already an EMD Member, see “Members Only Page” for updates on oil shales, for links to technical information on oil shales, and for related environmental information that may impact oil shales.

For further information on this committee’s activities, go to the Members’ Only Web page or contact:

Alan Burnham, Chair
Phone: (201) 207-7919

Committee Reports

 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/annual-meeting/2015-05-30/2015-05-30-EMD-AnnualMeeting-Committee-OilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28220
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/mid-year/2015-11-19/2015-11-19-EMD-Mid-YearMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28069
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/annual-meeting/2014-04-05/2014-04-05-EMDAnnualMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 27799
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/mid-year/2013-11-21/2013-11-21-EMD-Mid-YearMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28056
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/annual-meeting/2013-05-18/2013-05-18-EMDAnnualMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 27788
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/mid-year/2012-11-29/2012-11-29-EMD-Mid-YearMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28041
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/annual-meeting/2012-04-21/2012-04-21-EMDAnnualMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 27749
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/annual-meeting/2011-04-09/2011-04-09-EMDAnnualMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 27725
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/mid-year/2010-11-18/2010-11-18-EMD-Mid-YearMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28003
 
Desktop /Portals/0/docs/emd/reports/mid-year/2011-11-17/2011-11-17-EMD-Mid-YearMeetingCommitteeOilShale.pdf?pdfwidth=306&pdfheight=400&subpixels=true&page=1&format=jpg&width=100&height=100&mode=crop&anchor=topcenter&quality=90&encoder=freeimage&progressive=true&trim.threshold=255 28022
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