ExxonMobil Renews its Search for a Key to Unlock This Massive Oil Deposit

Royal Dutch Shell in-situ oil shale facility in Colorado. Photo credit: Wikipedia/U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior/USGS 

For years we've known that America was sitting on a simply remarkable oil resource. Some estimates suggest that our oil shale potential could exceed 6 trillion barrels of oil. It's one of the most concentrated hydrocarbon deposits on earth.

There's just one problem. Oil companies haven't figured out the key to economically extract these massive oil shale deposits. While much of big oil, including Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) have given up trying, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) is renewing its efforts to tap oil shale after previously shutting down its attempts in 1982.

What is oil shale?
America is in the middle of an oil boom as the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing unlocked our large shale or tight oil resources. Oil shale, however, isn't to be confused with shale oil despite the similar name. Oil shale, which is also known as kerogen shale is an organic-rich fine-grained sedimentary rock which contains kerogen. Basically, it's a solid mixture that contains hydrocarbons in a way similar to Canada's oil sands. Because it's solid it can't easily be drilled and produced.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Mion 

America's oil shale deposits are found in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The richest resource is the Green River Formation in Colorado, which contains about 80% of the recoverable oil shale. Estimates suggest that 600-800 billion barrels of oil could one day be recoverable from this oil shale formation, once the key is found. For perspective that's more than twice the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Finding the right approach
Finding the key to unlocking oil shale is difficult as it can't be produced through conventional drilling. Because of this oil producers have attempted to extract the oil using unconventional approaches such as mining it. While mining works in parts of the oil sands in Canada, it didn't work for ExxonMobil in the oil shale, which is why it gave up years ago. Instead, ExxonMobil's latest attempt will be to take another page from the oil sands and use an in-situ extraction process. In-situ, which means in place, is a process where a number of different wells are drilled with some injecting hot water or steam to heat the hard oil and other wells used to produce the oil.

Shell, however, recently abandoned a 31 year attempt at extracting oil shale. The company's Mahogany project in Colorado was an experimental in-situ project, but it couldn't produce commercially viable oil from the oil shale. Likewise, Chevron also recently abandoned its in-situ oil shale extraction project. The company's experimental process, which is called CRUSH and stands for Chevron's Technology for the Recovery and Upgrading of Oil from Shale is pictured to the right. The process simply didn't work to produce commercially viable oil.

Chevron's CRUSH Photo credit: Wikipedia

ExxonMobil is hoping that its new step-by-step approach will enable it to find the key to unlocking the estimated 600 million barrels of oil that are believed to be contained within its 160-acre lease. This new plan includes an appraisal phase that will drill a few test wells to install the technology it needs to monitor the area followed by wells to be used to heat the zone. The final phase will include a pilot test that will determine the commercial viability of the process on a field scale level.

Investor takeaway
Investors shouldn't hold their breath that ExxonMobil will find the key to unlocking our massive oil shale resources as the company makes its latest attempt. That being said, the industry never thought it would find the key to unlocking tight oil resources like shale. So it goes to show that where there is a will, the industry will try until it finds a way as there are literally trillions of dollars worth of oil buried in these oil shale formations.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 21, 2014, at 7:32 PM, JeremyBoak wrote:

    The article makes a few mistakes about oil shale and the companies trying to produce oil from it. First, oil shale is not called kerogen shale by anyone working in the business. This name has been cooked up by pundits who want to ignore the fact that shale oil is the term that has been applied for more than 100 yearsto the product of extraction of oil from oil shale. And Shell's abandonment of Colorado oil shale leases is no more an indication of their faith in the process than was their abandonment of the Eagle Ford an indication that this is an uneconomic play. They continue to work on oil shale using the same technology in Jordan, where the government is not so hostile to their efforts. Mining and retorting of oil shale has been economic in Estonia, China, and Brazil for decades.

    Jeremy Boak, Director

    Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research

    Colorado School of Mines

    Golden CO

    Viewpoints are mine, not positions of the Colorado School of Mines.

  • Report this Comment On March 22, 2014, at 11:04 AM, TMFmd19 wrote:

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for your response. While I'm not beyond making mistakes I beg do differ with you when you said the articles makes mistakes.

    Oil shale might not be called Kerogen shale by the industry, but it is a name its also known as (whether or not it was cooked up by pundits). I used that term in order to differentiate it from shale oil, which most energy investors are familiar with these days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_shale

    Also re: RDS I didn't infer that it couldn't be done, that Shell, "couldn't produce commercially viable oil from the oil shale." RDS is pulling back on a lot of projects that aren't making it enough money these days, oil shale being one of them.

    The main theme of the article was to put oil shale on the radar of readers as something to watch now that XOM is trying again. My hope is that XOM does find the key to unlocking this oil.

    Best,

    Matt

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2014, at 7:48 AM, PEStudent wrote:

    "In-situ, which means in place, is a process where a number of different wells are drilled with some injecting hot water or steam to heat the hard oil and other wells used to produce the oil."

    Way back in the 1970's when I was a Chemistry graduate student at IIT, IITRI (Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute) was using microwaves to heat oil shale in what they thought was a promising method. The microwaves, of course, are electromagnetic waves also used in radar that are slightly shorter in wavelength than infrared waves and can penetrate surfaces to some extent.

    Of course, the question is: how much does it cost to get the equipment that produces the microwaves into position and then how much to make the heated oil come out of the ground?

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