Why you should care

Because America’s oil shale boom hasn’t even started yet.

What do Hot Pockets and oil shale have in common? As it turns out, more than you might imagine. True, you can’t bake oil shale the way you can Hot Pockets. And you can’t steam Hot Pockets (unless you like ’em soggy) the way you can oil shale when you want to siphon off its black gold. But there is one preparation method that works for both these two improbable sources of abundant energy, and it’s probably in your kitchen at this very moment: microwaves.

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. And yet this microwave extraction technology comes at a time when the world is awash in oil, and prices are so low that domestic producers are having a hard time pumping at a profit.

We don’t need water for our process, and we don’t have wastewater to dispose of afterward.

Peter Kearl, co-founder of microwave technology company Qmast

Time for a quick geology lesson. Don’t worry, if “painless” and “geology lesson” ever belonged in the same sentence, it’s this one. The most important takeaway: Don’t confuse shale oil with the not-at-all-confusingly-named oil shale. Shale oil is essentially liquid oil locked up in rock that’s found in deep formations and requires hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for it to flow freely to the wellbore for extraction. Oil shale, on the other hand, isn’t really oil yet. Instead, it is found in more shallow formations that contain solid organic materials called kerogen. “You can get oil out of it,” says Dr. Seth Shonkoff, executive director of the energy science and policy institute PSE Healthy Energy, but it “usually involves subjecting the oil shale to high heat.” High heat from, say, microwaves. OK, class dismissed.

In Kearl’s playbook, you’d leave the kerogen in the ground and bring its oil to the surface. 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.

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Potential extraction for three types of U.S. oil reserves (from top to bottom): zapping, tapping and fracking. These figures from the USGS show “technically recoverable” deposits. Scale: 1:4.2 trillion.

Source Getty/Shutterstock

Kearl claims there are multiple environmental advantages to this technique. Fracking can slurp up to 10 million gallons of water per operation — not good, especially in the arid West. “We don’t need water for our process,” Kearl says, “and we don’t have wastewater to dispose of afterward.” In fact, microwave extraction might produce water — one barrel of water for every three barrels of oil. In situ recovery using microwaves also avoids the massive environmental impact of mining and then processing the kerogen. What’s more, natural gas that often is flared off in conventional oil-well production could be used to power the generator that creates the microwaves.

Kearl and company may overcome technical challenges and stand ready to bring microwaved wells on line, but there’s nothing they can do about their highest hurdle: the price of oil. Kearl estimates his pumping costs will be about $9 per barrel, which is only about $2 more than conventional wells. However, a recent report claims the price of oil needs to be $65 per barrel in order for new oil-patch investments to break even. The current price is about $47. So, unless the price of oil soars, all that microwavable oil shale may remain untapped.

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Strip mining in Canada’s oil sands, an environmentally devastating process, is similar to the practice currently used to exploit oil shales in the Green River Formation.

Source Michael S. Williamson/Getty

Waiting for crude to cost a Benjamin a barrel may buy the time some experts think the technology needs to mature. “[It] isn’t there yet,” says James W. Rector, professor of geoengineering at the UC Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Maybe in another 15 to 20 years it’ll be there.” He emphasizes that the massive capital expenditures required and the culture of the oil and gas industry translate into a long gestation period for any new technology.

In the meantime, Kearl and others think that the best use of the technique might be to clean conventional oil wells, which can clog with paraffin and other gunk, and to steam-clean fracked formations where water is blocking the flow of oil to the wellbore. “In the end,” says Shonkoff, “these microwave technologies may just enhance the ability of oil operators to squeeze a little bit more oil out of the ground.”

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