Sunday, August 24, 2008

TIRA: An Ugly Oil Shale Photograph Many Won't See

-Eamon Mac Mahon, Associated Press

Or in this case, "TIDRA": Things I Didn't Run Across.

I've always been interested in the more subtle forms of press censorship, in particular the gatekeeping role played by local newspapers. The photo above accompanies an Associated Press story by Rob Gillies entitled "Critics: Canada's Oil Boom an Environmental Bust". I came across the story at the Seattle Times website this morning, and that picture just about made me lose my breakfast. It's about the mad, earth-scarring dash to find and process oil from shale.

The power of the photograph (and, btw, I would really like to have Mr. Mac Mahon's permission to post the photograph here, and even called AP in Washington, but couldn't get in touch with anyone, and, besides, this is kinda of a "media studies" posting, so the copyright thing gets a little hazy, and that's my story and I'm sticking to it)...oh yeah, back to what I was saying. The power of the photograph made me wonder how many newspapers across the country were running this story.

I did a little Google News check (admittedly, far from conclusive) combined with a back-and-forth search of individual papers via Tons of newspapers around the country are posting the story. But two things are kinda interesting...

1. Many newspapers, at least online, aren't posting the photograph along with the story.
2. In the Intermountain West of the United States, where the oil shale boom matters most, few newspapers are posting the story at all. I found three so far (readers are encouraged to look and find more): the Denver Post, Las Cruces Sun-News, and Provo, Utah Daily Herald.

For instance, I can't find the story at all on the Albuquerque Journal website (and I know you're laughing out loud right now and saying "well Hell, that's not surprising..nobody can find anything on that website!). Well, I looked all I could and got nothing. I also looked at papers in Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Casper, and Laramie, and didn't find a thing.

Well...what do all these flimsy "facts" mean? That's there some sort of vast oil & gas developer conspiracy going on that directly/indirectly leads local news organizations to avoid negative stories about oil shale, and squashes dissemination of provocative photos that show how destructive oil shale can be to Mother Earth?

Uh....yeah. That's what it least to me. Your conspiracy mileage may vary.

More generally, I would humbly suggest that we, as a people and as "bloggers" do some systematic investigations of the more subtle forms of self-imposed press censorship. I realize that the age of the local newspaper is largely over. One can already almost literally smell the nitial stages of decomposition in the near-corpse that is the Albuquerque Journal, for instance.

Still, we need to do a better job of analyzing how the news is being neatly packaged for our consumption, more now than ever as the number of news outlets dwindle. One can't have watched the Beijing Olympics and avoided at least a passing thought about the Chinese government's stifling of information. One wonders how close we already are to the Chinese situation here, and how much closer we might get to that in a world seen by our leaders as one big counter-insurgency battleground and a shrinking independent media.

P.S.: And I wonder what the impact of the photo above might have on public policy discussion of oil shale exploration if it were shown on every TV newscast in the country at least once. No, it wouldn't be equivalent to the Tienanmen Square "guy in front of tank shot"...but it would have an impact.


Anonymous said...

One reason why this picture is more germane to Canada is than only in Canada (and Venezuela) are tar (oil) sands like this one found. There are tar sands in a few small areas in eastern Utah, but only in Canada are the sands water-wetted. In Utah-the only place in the US where tar sands exist, and by the way this is public land (not private and leasable)-the sands are hydrocarbon-wetted and require completely different and monstrously expensive methods to extract the oil. Even with the price of oil on the market today, strip mining of tar sands in Utah
ain't gonna happen.

Because of the different geological structures within the North American continent, shale oil in the lower 48 US states is harvested by drilling and "fracturing" the shale to reach the oil deposits that collect between the layers of shale. That's how it is done in the US.

While performing your systematic investigations of press censorship, you might also consider including systematic investigations of the subject matter, as well. While I absolutely agree with you on the heinous destruction of land in Canada through strip mining of their tar sands, it doesn't and won't happen here. Geology happens.

Canada may be willing to decimate its oil sands areas with this type of mining, but it won't happen in the US -- our geology prevents it.

jscotkey said...


Thanks for dropping by and your information on geology. It would be nice to have your name/email, as I'd like to ask some questions.

And yes, some of those questions are of the disagreeable sort.

Having heard/read myself that U.S. oil shale would be surface and underground mined, I did some checking around when I got home tonight and it sure looks like surface/underground mining is/will be playing a role in collecting oil from shale in the Intermountain West.

For example, here's a page from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an online EIS for oil shale:

To quote a line or two from the site:

"Oil shale can be mined using one of two methods: underground mining using the room-and-pillar method or surface mining. After mining, the oil shale is transported to a facility for retorting, a heating process that separates the oil fractions of oil shale from the mineral fraction..."

It does mention a process in development from Shell that heats the shale "in situ" to 700 degrees and extracting hot oil as it's released, but the surface/underground looks like the primary method still planned.

And to make this even longer, let's quote the final paragraph from the BLM webpage

"Both mining and processing of oil shale involve a variety of environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality. The development of a commercial oil shale industry in the U.S. would also have significant social and economic impacts on local communities. Of special concern in the relatively arid western United States is the large amount of water required for oil shale processing; currently, oil shale extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, though some of the water can be recycled."

So, in sum, while "tar sands" and "oil shale" have differences, it appears that surface mining and environmental destruction seem just as likely with U.S. oil shale extraction as with Canadian tar sands.

Again, I'd be happy to find out more from you on the subject, but from what I've been able to "extract" tonight it seems to conform to my previous thinking that this is a really, really stupid idea.

P.S.: This sort of conflicting information also seems to indicate exactly why local newspapers in the Intermountain West SHOULD put out stories on oil shale to better inform a readership unsure of what it all means.