It is estimated that there is 1.5 trillion barrels of oil trapped in Western Shale. That is 300 years worth of oil at 5 billion barrels annual consumption. There are around a dozen private companies working on the technology to unleash this oil. Shell engineers have estimated that they can make a profit at $30/barrel price levels. That means it probably will be competitive at $100/barrel, but here we are.
The devil is in the details. Existing techniques include crushing the shale and treating it. But this produces massive amounts of toxic waste. New techniques are proprietary, but here’s one I’ve been able to find out.
It involves creating a ring of ice (freeze seal) around a deposit to keep out the groundwater. Once the freeze seal is in place, heating elements are inserted into the oil shale to heat it to 600-700F. At that temperature, the petroleum is released from the shale and would need to enter some type of collection system. Estimates are that 3 units of energy would be generated by one unit of energy. The output is light, sweet crude.
Small, portable nuclear power plants would be the perfect electricity source to provide the freeze seal as well as the electricity for the heating elements. Bill might just have to dust off the old patent pen and get to work on this one.
Update: The freeze seal does not keep groundwater out of the oil, it keeps the oil out of the groundwater.