New technology better than fracking could vastly expand oil reserves

Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, has revolutionized energy production in the United States and cornered OPEC.  That cartel is currently attempting to restrict oil production and raise prices, but it faces the reality that American frackers can rapidly expand output.  It’s a nightmare if you are a corrupt petro-dictator of any stripe, communist to jihadist.

Now the never-ending quest for new technologies has yielded a potentially revolutionary replacement or substitute for fracking: microwaving shale to extract oil and gas.  James Watkins reports in

As strange as it sounds, producers are experimenting with ways to zap previously unextractable oil resources with microwaves, which has the potential to kick-start an even bigger energy revolution than fracking — and appease environmentalists while they’re at it. This is potentially “a whole shift in the paradigm,” says Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast, a Colorado-based company pioneering the use of the microwave tech. Some marquee names are betting on the play: Oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips are pouring resources into developing similar extraction techniques, which can be far less water- and energy-intensive than fracking.

If producers can find a way to microwave oil shales in the Green River Formation, which sprawls across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the nation’s recoverable reserves could soar and energy independence could become more than an election slogan. Even with existing methods — strip-mining the shale and then cooking it, or injecting steam to cook the rock underground (hydraulic fracturing is useless here) — the formation contains enough oil to last the U.S. 165 years at current rates of consumption. Microwave extraction could goose those numbers even higher. After all, there are more than 4 trillion (with a “t”) barrels of oil in the Green River Formation.

Let’s take a deep breath.  One formation, previously inaccessible, has a century and half’s worth of oil for America.

Sure, there is technology yet to be fully implemented, but the approach sounds promising, indeed:

Producers would microwave oil shale formations with a beam as powerful as 500 household microwave ovens, cooking the kerogen and releasing the oil. It also would turn the water found naturally in the deposits to steam, which would help push the oil to the wellbore. “Once you remove the oil and water,” Kearl continues, “the rock basically becomes transparent” to the microwave beam, which can then penetrate outward farther and farther, up to about 80 feet from the wellbore. It doesn’t sound like much, but a single microwave-stimulated well, which would be drilled in formations on average nearly 1,000 feet thick, could pump about 800,000 barrels. Qmast plans to have its first systems deployed in the field in 2017 and start producing by the end of that year.

So in another year, we may see production begin.

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