SALT LAKE CITY — A research chemist from Colorado and two technology management students from Singapore were involved in an intensive 10-week crash course this summer involving Utah's vast oil shale resources.
They set about to answer the question of whether those resources can be developed, should be developed, and if so, what hurdles would have to be overcome.
The idea was to present a research paper at the 35th Annual Oil Shale Symposium that began Monday in Salt Lake City and continues Tuesday.
They came out with "Oil Shale Treasure Trove or Pandora's Box," a 116-page e-book because the topic is so complex.
"We are trying to engage people in a reasonable discussion and take a look at their resource," said Ron Stites, a research chemist and managing member of Stites & Associates.
Oil shale and oil sands, after all, is the American public's resource, so they should be involved in the conversation, he said.
"We're engaging the reader as the mineral owner," he said, adding that the book is intended to be an objective view of oil shale development with a targeted audience of the general public, advocates and policymakers.
Some of the richest, most concentrated oil shale resources in the world are found in the Green River Formation in western Colorado, southeastern Utah and southern Wyoming. The entire formation holds an estimated 3 trillion barrels of oil, half of which could be recovered. Utah's recoverable oil is estimated at 77 billion barrels.
Red Leaf Resources has a demonstration project underway in eastern Utah and Estonia-based Enefit hopes to someday pull 2.6 billion barrels of oil from their project southeast of Vernal.
Stites and researchers Yuan Ming Lee and Matthew James said their research found a key impediment to commercialization of the resource is the high capital cost, but the technology is there.
"It is wrong to say oil shale can't be developed," Stites said. "It is not going to be some sort of environmental Armageddon. That is not true."
But protestors urging that the oil shale be left untapped stood outside the conference prior to its beginning and then once talks were underway interrupted the symposium with chants and singing.
The protest was led by Canyon Country Rising Tide and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, climate justice organizations that routinely demonstrate against fossil fuel resources.
Stites said advocacy organizations have been effective at getting their message across.
"The public view of oil shale is very skewed. It is skewed by an advocacy industry that often does not want to engage in the discussion. You need to get to the mineral owner and engage that discussion, people who have (mineral) interests that can be developed and have skin in the game — not advocacy groups. Of course they will be players at the table, but you have to engage the mineral owners.”
Stites added that Utah's key to tapping production of oil shale resources will be development that occurs on private and school trust lands — landlords who have business sense.
"The feds are not going to help you out."
Lee, a chemical engineering student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said it is clear the technology exists to make oil shale viable, but production and investment risk are obstacles.
And while Lee said it is clear "renewables are definitely going to be the long-term solution … it is important to sustain our way of living right now, before that is ready. It is also important to bolster this resource that we have."