History of the oil shale industry

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Production of oil shale in millions of metric tons, from 1880 to 2010. Source: Pierre Allix, Alan K. Burnham.[1]

The history of the oil shale industry started in ancient times. The modern industrial use of oil shale for oil extraction dates to the mid-19th century and started growing just before World War I because of the mass production of automobiles and trucks and the supposed shortage of gasoline for transportation needs. Between the World Wars oil shale projects were begun in several countries.[2]

After World War II, the oil shale industry declined due to increased accessibility to conventional crude oil. As of 2010, oil shale was commercially used in Estonia, China and Brazil, while several countries are considering to start or restart commercial use of oil shale.[2]

Early history[edit]

Humans have used oil shale as a fuel since prehistoric times, since it generally burns without any processing.[3] It was also used for decorative purposes and construction. Britons of the Iron Age used to polish and form oil shale into ornaments.[4] Around 3000 BC, "rock oil" was used in Mesopotamia for road construction and making architectural adhesives.[5]

As a decorative material, oil shale was also used over the Greek, Roman, Byzantinian, Umayyad and Abbasid periods to decorate mosaics and floors of the palaces, churches and mosques.[6][7] Shale oil was used for medical and military purposes. Mesopotamians used it for medical purposes and for caulking ships, Mongols used to cap their arrows with flaming oil shale.[5] In 10th century, the Arabian physician Masawaih al-Mardini (Mesue the Younger) described a method of extraction of oil from "some kind of bituminous shale".[8]

In the early 14th century, the first use of shale oil was recorded in Switzerland and Austria.[9] In 1350, a knight Berthold von Eberhausen was awarded a right to exploit the Seefeld oil shale in Tyrol. Oil shale was used for production of shale oil using an early retorting method of heating the crushed oil shale put in crucibles.[8] The healing properties of a mineral oil distilled from oil shale were noted in 1596 by the personal physician of the Duke of Württemberg Frederick I.[5]

In Skåne, the Swedish alum shale dating from the Cambrian and Ordovician periods was used for extracting potassium aluminium sulfate by roasting it over fire as early as 1637.[2][10] In Italy, shale oil was used to light the streets of Modena at the turn of the 17th century.[5] The British Crown granted a patent in 1694 to three persons who had "found a way to extract and make great quantities of pitch, tarr, and oyle out of a sort of stone."[5][11][12] Shale oil was produced by extracting Shropshire oil shale.[13] Later sold as Betton's British Oil, the distilled product was said to have been "tried by divers persons in Aches and Pains with much benefit.[8] In 1781, Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald, registered a patent for an extraction process to produce tar, pitch and oil from coal and bituminous shales, using masonry retorts and wooden condensers.[11]

In Russia Peter the Great initiated an investigative program of Ukhta oil shale in 1697. Data on physical and chemical properties of Ukhta oil shale was published by a correspondent member of the Russian Academy Tertii Bornovolokov in 1809. In the 1830s Germain Henri Hess investigated Baltic oil shales with resulting determination of the semicoking process product yields.[14]

Start of the modern industry[edit]

In this vertical retort, oil shale is processed in a cast iron vessel which is broader at the bottom and narrow at the top. Lines on the left point to and describe its major components. From bottom to top, they consist of a water seal, coal-fired furnaces flanking a cast iron retort, a hopper receiving the shale, and a valve system. Arrows and text on the right show process inputs and outputs: steam is injected near the bottom of the retort; near its top, oil vapors and gases are drawn off and collected; a wheeled container delivers oil shale to the hopper.
Alexander C. Kirk's retort, used in the mid-to-late 19th century, was one of the first vertical oil shale retorts. Its design is typical of retorts used in the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century.[11]
Three of West Lothian's shale bings - reminders of the industry pioneered in Scotland by James "Paraffin" Young.
The remains of a shale bing, Drumshoreland, near Pumpherston.

The modern industrial use of oil shale for oil extraction started in France, where oil shale commercial mining began in Autun in 1837.[15] The shale oil production started in 1838 by using Selligue process, invented by Alexander Selligue.[11][16] In 1846 the Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner invented a process for retorting an illuminating liquid from coal, bitumen and oil shale.[17][18] In 1847 the Scottish chemist James Young prepared "lighting oil," lubricating oil and wax from cannel coal and since 1862 from torbanite.[19] In 1850 he patented the process of cracking oil.[17][20] The Scottish shale oil industry thrived for decades afterward.[21]

Commercial scale shale oil extraction in Britain started in 1859 by Robert Bell in Broxburn, West Lothian.[11] About the same time Germany began exploiting its deposits. During the second half of the 19th century shale oil extraction industries were initiated also in Sweden, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.[10] In Canada, the Craigleith Shale Oil Works started to retort oil shale of the Ordovician Whitby Formation near Collingwood, Ontario, on Lake Huron, in 1859.[22][23]

In the United States, commercial-scale shale oil extraction began at shale oil retorts using the Devonian oil shale along the Ohio River Valley.[16] In 1855 an oil distillery was built in Breckinridge County, Kentucky to produce coal oil from locally mined cannel coal. By the following year it was producing 600 to 700 gallons per day. In 1860, there were 55 companies in the US manufacturing coal oil, most of them in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and western Virginia (now West Virginia), using locally mined cannel coal. However, the discovery of cheap and abundant petroleum in the same region, starting with the Drake Oil Well at Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, put the American oil shale industry out of business in 1861.[10][24]

In Australia, the first oil shale mine was commenced in 1865 at American Creek, Mount Kembla in New South Wales. At the same year, the first shale oil was produced by the Pioneer Kerosene Works at American Creek.[25][26] A number of other mines and shale oil plants were opened in New South Wales; however, in the beginning of the 20th century they were closed due to the import of cheaper crude oil.[25] In Brazil, oil shale was first exploited in 1884 in Bahia.[10]

In 1894, the Pumpherston retort (also known as the Bryson retort) was invented, which is considered as a separation of the oil shale industry from the coal industry.[11] It stayed in use until 1938.[27]

Operations during the 19th century focused on the production of kerosene, lamp oil, and paraffin wax; these products helped supply the growing demand for lighting that arose during the Industrial Revolution.[28] Fuel oil, lubricating oil and grease, and ammonium sulfate were also produced.[29]

First half of the 20th century[edit]

Oil retort at Kilve, West Somerset, England

The oil shale industry expanded immediately before World War I because of limited access to conventional petroleum resources and the mass production of automobiles and trucks, which accompanied an increase in gasoline consumption. The Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves of the United States was established in 1912. The reserves were seen as a possible emergency source of fuel for the military, particularly the Navy.[30] In 1915 an oil shale industry was established in Switzerland.

The year 1916 is considered the beginning of the Estonian oil shale industry. In 1917, Russian paleontologist Mikhail Zalessky named kukersite oil shale after the Kukruse settlement.[31] Continuous mining activities started shortly after. Initially, oil shale was used primarily in the cement industry, for firing in locomotive furnaces, and as a household fuel, followed by shale oil and power production. The first experimental oil shale processing retorts were built in 1921. In 1924, the Tallinn Power Plant was the first power plant in the world to employ oil shale as its primary fuel.[32][33]

Between the World Wars oil shale projects were begun in Spain, China, Russia and South Africa; they restarted in Brazil and, for a short time, in Canada.[10][34] In China, the extraction of oil shale began in 1926 under the Japanese rule.[2] The commercial-scale production of shale oil began in 1930 in Fushun, Manchuria, with the construction of the "Refinery No. 1" operating Fushun-type retorts.[2] In Russia, Leningradslanets opened the Kirov oil shale mine in 1934 in Slantsy, Leningrad Oblast, and during World War II the oil shale mining started at Kashpirskoye field near Syzran in the Volga region. In 1939–1945, a shale oil pilot plant operated in Morocco.[10]

During World War II a modified in situ extraction process was used in Germany by digging tunnels into oil shale deposits and then collapsing their walls into the void volume to ignitate. This process had extremely low oil recovery and it was hard to control.[35] In Sweden, the Swedish Shale Oil Company was formed in 1940.[19] It exploited one of the earliest in-situ processes–underground gasification by electrical energy (Ljungström method)–between 1940 and 1966 at Kvarntorp.[35] In 1940–1952, three NTU retorts were operated at Marangaroo, New South Wales, Australia.[35][36][37]


Anvils Point Research Center in 1970.

Although the Estonian, Russian and Chinese oil shale industries continued to grow after World War II, most other countries abandoned their projects due to high processing costs and the availability of cheaper petroleum.[2][10][15][34] The shale oil extraction in Australia was discontinued in 1952 due to ceasing of government funding, in France in 1957, in Britain and South Africa in 1962, and in Sweden and Spain in 1966.[10][19] In Germany only Rohrbach Zement (now part of Holcim) in Dotternhausen continued using oil shale for cement, power and thermal energy production.[2][10]

In 1946–1952, Dictyonema argillite was used for uranium production in Sillamäe.[2][38][39] In Sweden the extraction of alum shale for uranium and vanadium continued until 1989.[2]

Since 1948, Estonian-produced oil shale gas was used in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and in northern Estonia cities as a substitute for natural gas.[40][41][42] In 1949, the Kohtla-Järve Power Plant – the first power plant in the world using pulverized oil shale at an industrial scale – was commissioned in Estonia.[33] The world's two largest oil shale-fired power stations – Balti Power Plant and Eesti Power Plant (known as the Narva Power Plants) – were opened in 1965 and in 1973.[10]

In Russia, the first oil-shale-fired unit in the power plant in Syzran was commissioned on 31 December 1947.[43] The Slantsy oil shale gas extraction plant for supplying oil shale gas to Leningrad and the first unit of the Slantsy oil-shale-fired power plant were commissioned in 1952.[40][44] Since 1955 until 2003 the plant produced shale oil using Kiviter technology.[45]

In China, the "Refinery No. 2" of Fushun began its production in 1954 and in 1959, the maximum annual shale oil production increased to 780,000 tonnes.[46] The produced shale oil was used for producing light liquid fuels.[10][47] In 1961, China was producing one third of its total oil production from oil shale.

The United States Bureau of Mines opened a demonstration mine at Anvils Point, west of Rifle, Colorado, which operated at a small scale.[30] In the early 1960s TOSCO (The Oil Shale Corporation) opened an underground mine and built an experimental plant near Parachute, Colorado. It was closed in 1972 because the price of production exceeded the cost of imported crude oil.[15][48][49]

In 1951, the United States Department of Defense became interested in oil shale as an alternative resource for producing a jet fuel.[48] In 1953, Sinclair Oil Corporation developed an in situ processing method using existing and induced fractures between vertical wells.[50] In the 1960s, a proposal was suggested for a modified in situ process which involved creation of a rubble chimney (a zone in the rock formation created by breaking the rock into fragments) using a nuclear explosive.[51]


The Colony oil shale development site in August 1973.

In 1972, the first modified in situ oil shale experiment in the United States was conducted by Occidental Petroleum at Logan Wash, Colorado.[52] Due to the 1973 oil crisis, the oil shale industry restarted in several countries. The United States Navy and the Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves started evaluations of oil shale's suitability for military fuels, such as jet fuels, marine fuels and a heavy fuel oil. Shale-oil based JP-4 jet fuel was produced until the early 1990s, when it was replaced with kerosene-based JP-8.[48] In 1974 the United States Department of the Interior announced an oil shale leasing program in the oil shale regions of Colorado and Utah, and by the early 1980s almost all of the major oil companies had established oil shale pilot projects.

The United States oil shale industry collapsed when oil prices fell in the early 1980s. On 2 May 1982, known as "Black Sunday", Exxon canceled its US$5 billion Colony Shale Oil Project near Parachute, Colorado because of low oil-prices and increased expenses, laying off more than 2,000 workers and leaving a trail of home-foreclosures and small-business bankruptcies.[9][53] In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 which among other things abolished the United States' Synthetic Liquid Fuels Program.[48] The last oil shale retort in the United States, operated by Unocal Corporation, closed in 1991.[54]

Because of the success of oil shale-based power generation, Estonian oil shale production peaked in 1980 at 31.35 million tonnes. The largest oil shale mine in the world – the Estonia Mine – was opened in 1972.[55] However, production decreased in Estonia during the 1990s, due to reduced demand from the power generation industry. It was mainly affected by construction of the nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union.[10] In 1983, the Syzran Power Plant was transferred from oil shale to natural gas followed by the Slantsy Power Plant in 1998.[10][43]

In Israel, a 0.1 MW pilot oil shale-fired power plant was tested in 1982–1986. A 12.5 MW fluidised-bed demonstration plant in Mishor Rotem became operational in 1989.[10] In Romania, a 990 MW oil shale-fired power plant at Crivina operated in 1983–1988; however, it was decommissioned due to inefficiency and technical problems.[14][56]

Latest developments[edit]

The global oil shale industry started to grow slightly in the mid-1990s although most of the industries were ceased in Russia where oil shale mining continued only on a small scale.[10] In 1992 commercial shale oil production using Petrosix technology resumed in Brazil. Estonian oil shale production has continuously increased since 1995 and several new processing plants using modified Galoter technology were built.[10] In 2005, China became the largest shale oil producer in the world with an increased number of companies involved in the shale oil extraction.[10][57] In Russia,

In Australia, the Alberta Taciuk technology was used for the a demonstration-scale processing plant at the Stuart Deposit near Gladstone, Queensland, which produced between 2000 and 2004 over 1.5 million barrels (240×10^3 m3) of shale oil.[58] In 2008–2009, the facility was dismantled and a new demonstration plant based on the Paraho II process was opened in September 2011.[10][58][59]

In the United States, an oil shale development program was initiated in 2003.[60] The Energy Policy Act of 2005 introduced a commercial leasing program for oil shale and tar sands resources on public lands within the states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.[61]

In April 2010, the 4th Workshop on Regional Cooperation for Clean Utilization of Oil Shale was held in Egypt and later the same month an Oil Shale Cooperation Center was established in Amman by Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Turkey.[10] In 2011, Israel closed the Mishor Rotem Power Plant.[62]

See also[edit]


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