Love for shale

ESTONIA is expanding its shale oil business, an event which would not have caught the eye of Slugcatcher but for the fact that Australia copped a mention in the same report from that tiny country's capital, Tallinn.

According to a Reuters dispatch from the frozen shores of the Baltic, the plan is for Estonia to grow its own already substantial shale business and look at exporting its technology to other countries which have large deposits of the oil-rich rock.

Brazil, Australia and the Middle East kingdom of Jordan are highest on the export target for the Estonians who already generate close to 90% of their power from shale oil.

If investors can be found, and if the target countries will tolerate the pollution problems associated with shale, then perhaps this much-maligned industry could spring into life.

Slugcatcher knows Australia has tried, repeatedly, to develop a substantial shale oil business, and that early last century oil from shale was seen as a liquid-fuel solution for the country.

He also knows shale is not even on the radar screen of government or major oil companies because of the historic problems associated with "cooking" hard rock, and disposing of the rubbish generated.

But having acknowledged the big issues confronting shale there was a certain symmetry in the way three news items unfolded last week.

First came the report from Estonia, which sank without trace, except on the desk of oil-news junkies such as The Slug.

Then came reports that the oil price is heading for US$120 a barrel, thanks largely to the continued decline of the US dollar.

And, finally came a fresh analysis of the Australian petroleum situation from APPEA.

Looking at these reports in reverse order, the Australia Petroleum Production and Exploration Association reckons domestic production of crude oil and condensate will drop to 32% of demand by 2017 unless major new discoveries are made.

In terms of news, this was treated as being in the ho-hum category because it's something APPEA has been saying for at least 20 years. All that changes is the percentage of domestic contribution to demand.

The oil price itself needs no comment. It's a fact of life that the world is slowly learning to deal with.

The shale oil report also falls into the "seen it all before" category, but for the enthusiasm with which the Estonians seem to be treating their effort to export a business which has served them well.

According to the story from Tallinn, the Estonians are working on ways to limit the polluting aspect of shale processing, and are writing a report for the Government in Jordan on how it might turn a large deposit of shale into a source of oil.

Australia and Brazil are said to be next on the export list.

Slugcatcher would not normally, after two decades of listening to the shale debate, be particularly excited about this latest re-run of an old yarn.

But desperate times bring desperate solutions and even if shale is an environmental disaster waiting to happen using existing technology, it is possible to see a long-term oil price above $US100 a barrel being an equation-changing event.

If the Estonians really do have a viable technology then it would not surprise The Slug to see an entrepreneurial Australian look at ways of importing it into this country.

Who knows, with the right technology, we might even see moves to revive the mothballed Rundle and Stuart projects in Queensland - especially if the price is right.

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