Pombo, Oil Shale, and Ethanol
The Stockton Record’s Hank Shaw has a good article up today about how richly the oil energy companies have rewarded Richard Pombo for being their lapdog in Congress. One of the interesting things about the article, besides quantifying in print how deeply Pombo is in the pocket of Big Oil, is that the article discusses Pombo’s quixotic focus on oil shale to meet America’s energy needs. This is juxtaposed to Pombo’s rather passionless support for ethanol as a fuel. And this juxtaposition brings into stark relief how misplaced Pombo’s priorities are.
Here is how Hank Shaw begins the article (emphasis mine):
SACRAMENTO - In the 31/2 years since Rep. Richard Pombo became chairman of the House Resources Committee, he has emerged as one of the Congress' loudest cheerleaders for expanding domestic energy supplies.
Pombo's efforts have been rewarded.
Eleven cents of every dollar Pombo, R-Tracy, has collected for his re-election campaign has come from the oil and energy industry, a Record analysis has found.
That's more than $212,000, and more is expected when a new set of federal campaign-finance reports becomes public this week.
Pombo's campaign featured his efforts to increase oil shale production on the invitation to a fund-raiser headlined by Vice President Dick Cheney scheduled for today; Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co., is one of the world's leading energy-services corporations.
Now we have known for awhile that Pombo has received a significant amount of money from energy interests. Most notably, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund has run the Pombo in Their Pocket campaign to educate all and sundry about how well-funded Pombo is by various environmentally rapacious industries. But Shaw has focused his analysis on Pombo’s current re-election campaign. And I have to admit that I was startled by how much Pombo has received from the oil and energy industry even though I knew they were heavily funding him.
Furthermore, the fact that this analysis comes from the Stockton Record, a paper with a large distribution in San Joaquin Valley, and from a source that cannot be demonized as a tool of the Democrats, means that it ought to be accepted as factual even by people who are not apt to listen to anything Defenders has to say.
But I think the article gets more interesting when you look at the way Shaw contrasts Pombo’s support for oil shale with his less enthusiastic support for ethanol.
The journey into the oil fields has been unusual for Pombo, a rancher who previously had been best-known for his quest to overhaul the Endangered Species Act.Now just on a prima facie level, we ought to recognize the juxtaposition that Shaw makes. On one side is a pursuit of ethanol that is technologically feasible (if Brazil can do it, so can we), that would benefit farmers, and that would appreciably bring down the price of gas. On the other hand is oil shale, which is experimental, which will by all accounts (we’ll get more into this later) hurt the environment and thereby piss off the hook and bullet crowd, but which is supported by Pombo’s big campaign contributors. It kind of makes you wonder why he’d be pursuing the latter much more vigorously than the former.
After all, hunters and ranchers in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado now use much of the land rich in oil shale that Pombo has helped create incentives to extract.
And while Pombo supports increased use of ethanol - one of U.S. agriculture's primary goals - he is not considered a player in ethanol politics.
It is in ethanol that Pombo's critics say the seven-term incumbent has abandoned his agricultural roots. A fuel containing 15 percent ethanol sold in the Midwest is running about 40 cents a gallon cheaper than regular unleaded gasoline, and the cost to outfit a new car to burn this fuel cleanly adds only about $100 to its price.
By focusing on oil, Pombo's critics say he's looking backward.
"This should be a natural for him," said energy expert Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley. "He's fighting some of the older battles."
Kammen says the barriers toward widespread ethanol use - Brazil has become almost self-sufficient with ethanol derived from sugar cane - are "ridiculously low."
Pombo says ethanol is not the sole answer to U.S. energy problems.
"Reliance (solely) on oil or ethanol is short-sighted," he said. "Neither one is the answer. It has to be a balance."
More controversial is Pombo's eagerness to tap the 1,000-foot-thick shale deposits beneath several Western states. Oil shale is notoriously tough to extract, and existing methods amount to strip mining that leaves mountains of toxic, desiccated shale leaching poisons into the groundwater.
Hunting groups such as the Colorado Mule Deer Association cite a study - commissioned by the oil industry - that shows drilling harms mule deer and pronghorn antelope herds.
Shell Oil has managed a less-nasty method, but it's not clear that experiment can be replicated on a commercial scale. It is this type of extraction Pombo says he supports; he notes that no company could win federal approval for doing it the old way, thanks to environmental law.
A Shell subsidiary recently won one of the new shale leases under a program Pombo helped create, and Shell lobbyist Jack Belcher helped organize an industry fund-raiser for Pombo in Houston last month.
Belcher worked for Pombo until 2004.
Now the tension of this juxtaposition is only heightened when we consider exactly how ridiculous this “less-nasty method” of oil shale extraction is.
Here is an excerpt from one of the best takedowns of oil shale that I have read. It was originally printed as an Op-Ed piece in the Denver Post.
In truth, oil shale presents a paradox. If these rocks are, as some claim, the richest fossil fuel resource on Earth, why has it been so difficult to unlock them?Now we get to see what Shell’s plan really amounts to. And we see why it’s ludicrous for Pombo to support it over something clearly more feasible like investing in ethanol or (gasp) actually requiring better fuel efficiency in the cars we drive. (The emphasis in what follows is all mine).
The primary explanation is that oil shale is a lousy fuel. Compared to the coal that launched the Industrial Revolution or the oil that sustains the world today, oil shale is the dregs. Coal seams a few feet thick are worth mining because coal contains lots of energy. If coal is good, oil is even better. And oil shale? Per pound, it contains one-tenth the energy of crude oil, one-sixth that of coal.
Searching for appropriate analogies, we enter the realm of Weight Watchers. Oil shale is said to be "rich" when a ton yields 30 gallons of oil. An equal weight of granola contains three times more energy. America's "vast," "immense" deposits of shale have the energy density of a baked potato. Oil shale has one-third the energy density of Cap'n Crunch, but no one is counting on the Quaker Oats Company to become a major energy producer soon.
Historically, oil shale has been mined, crushed and roasted in large kilns, or "retorts." The slag, swollen in volume and contaminated with arsenic, must then be disposed. The process is so costly, laborious and polluting that global output has never exceeded 25,000 barrels a day, compared to 84 million barrels of conventional oil production.
In the last 150 years, humans have used 1 trillion barrels of conventional oil. The second trillion will be consumed in the next 30 years. Given projected demand for fuel, Royal/ Dutch Shell has been experimenting with a new way to produce shale oil, a way that is, at first glance, more promising.
The plan is audacious. Shell proposes to heat a 1,000-foot-thick section of shale to 700 degrees, then keep it that hot for three years. Beam me up, Scotty, but first share some details. Imagine a 100-acre production plot. Inside that area, the company would drill as many as 1,000 wells. Next, long electric heaters would be inserted in preparation for a multi-year bake. It's a high-stakes gamble, but if it works, a 6-mile-by- 6-mile area could, over the coming century, produce 20 billion barrels, roughly equal to remaining reserves in the lower 48 states.
Although Shell's method avoids the need to mine shale, it requires a mind-boggling amount of electricity. To produce 100,000 barrels per day, the company would need to construct the largest power plant in Colorado history. Costing about $3 billion, it would consume 5 million tons of coal each year, producing 10 million tons of greenhouse gases. (The company's annual electric bill would be about $500 million.) To double production, you'd need two power plants. One million barrels a day would require 10 new power plants, five new coal mines. And 10 million barrels a day, as proposed by some, would necessitate 100 power plants.
How soon will we know whether Shell's technology is economic? The company plans to do more experiments, before making a final decision by 2010. If it pulls the trigger, it would be at least three or four years before the first oil would flow, perhaps at a rate of 10,000 barrels a day. That's less than one-tenth of 1 percent of current U.S. consumption. But if it turns out that Shell needs more energy to produce a barrel of oil than a barrel contains, bets are off. That's the equivalent of burning the furniture to keep the house warm. Energy is the original currency; electricity its most valuable form. Using coal-fired electricity to wring oil out of rocks is like feeding steak to the dog and eating his Alpo.
In a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. With half the world's oil shale resources located here, our region is committed. Another recent report by the RAND Corp. warned that if oil shale developers "overstress the environmental carrying capacity of the area, we may never see more than a few hundred thousand barrels per day of production." Amen.
Large-scale development of the kind proposed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Pombo would be a disaster. The DOE casually dedicates all of western Colorado's surplus water to oil shale, proposes enormous open-pit mines 2,000 feet deep, and advocates retorting up to 6 billion tons of shale each year. That's twice the tonnage of all coal mined in the U.S. and China. This is not a vision, it is a nightmare.
Americans love panaceas. We want thinner thighs in 30 days, a pill to cure baldness, an ultrasonic carburetor that will double our mileage. A magic wand would be nice, because the nation faces serious energy challenges. Since domestic oil production peaked 30 years ago, the need for energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy has been obvious. Instead, like an addict on a binge, we continue to pursue a policy of "strength through exhaustion." Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before improving our woeful vehicle efficiency is one example of this brain-dead approach.
What contribution can oil shale make to energy security? Producing 100,000 barrels per day of shale oil does not violate the laws of physics. But the nation currently consumes that much oil every seven minutes. Improving the efficiency of our automobiles by 2 miles per gallon would save 10 times as much fuel, saving consumers $100 billion at the pump. The National Academy of Sciences has stated that cars, trucks and SUVs that get 30, 40 or 50 miles per gallon are doable. An aggressive national commitment to fuel efficiency is not optional, it's inevitable. In time, a more efficient fleet could save 20 times as much petroleum as oil shale is likely to ever provide.
All hype aside, oil shale is the poorest of the fossil fuels, containing far less energy than crude oil, much less even than hog manure, peat moss or Cap'n Crunch. A meager amount of energy, tightly bound up in an enormous volume of rock, oil shale seems destined to remain an elusive bonanza, the petroleum equivalent of fool's gold.
There is a certain latent potential in all of this information. Pombo has tried to foster the image that he’s a friend to farmers and ranchers. But oil shale seems like a boondoggle that will only benefit rich oil companies like Shell at great costs (both in real terms and in opportunity costs) to farmers and ranchers. You could make the case that he’s not specifically harming the farmers and ranchers in CA-11, since there are no oil shale deposits in the district and since corn-based ethanol will largely benefit corn growers in the Midwest. But the truth is that everyone’s hurting because of high fuel costs, including all of the residents of CA-11. In any event, he’s certainly showing no fidelity to those he claims to identify with, especially when compared to how faithful Pombo is to the interests of Big Oil. And you would think that someone who wears a Stetson so prominently would be interested in a process that produces energy as well as a byproduct that can be used as animal feed. Instead, he’d rather focus on oil shale production, which would require turning vast swaths of land into what amounts to a giant toaster. Apparently when it comes to energy production, Pombo is in a very literal way all hat and no cattle. I guess you don’t need any cattle when you have friends like these.