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Estonia eager to teach world about oil shale

Thursday - 5/30/2013, 9:31am  ET

In this March 2013 photo, oil shale rock is processed in northeastern Estonia by removing limestone that is mined along with it. After this “enrichment” process the shale can be used to produce electricity in power plants or undergo further refining to make a variety of liquid fuels. Estonia, which burns shale to meet over 90 percent of its annual electricity needs, is attempting to export its unique technological expertise to shale-rich countries such as Jordan and the United States. Home to the creators of Skype and the first country to use online voting, Estonia relishes its image as a technological pioneer. But the tiny East European country's most far-reaching economic achievement could come from how it has learned to squeeze oil from a rock. (AP Photo/Gary Peach)

Associated Press

AUVERE, Estonia (AP) -- Home to the creators of Skype and the first country to use online voting, Estonia relishes its image as a technological pioneer. But the tiny East European country's most far-reaching economic achievement could come from how it has learned to squeeze oil from a rock.

About 200 feet (60 meters) below ground in northeastern Estonia, very close to the Russian border, miners drill holes in a gray-brown limestone wall as they prepare a series of blasts that will free up a soft brown sedimentary rock that contains oil. This oil shale is then scooped up and sent by conveyer to crushing mills above. From there, the shale will either be burned to create electric power or processed further to produce shale oil, a liquid fuel.

Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, gets more than 90 percent of its electricity needs from oil shale -- by far the world's most shale-dependent country.

With interest in non-conventional energy resources surging globally, Estonia wants to carve its own niche by perfecting the technology needed to produce cleaner electricity and high-grade fuel products from oil shale -- know-how it wants to export to distant places such as Jordan and the U.S.

But environmentalists in Estonia are concerned that large-scale shale mining could cause pollution and contaminate underground water supplies.

Estonia's oil shale resources are very different from the shale deposits that are now yielding enormous amounts of oil and gas throughout the U.S.

Oil shale is rock that contains organic matter known as kerogen that, when heated, can produce a liquid oil very similar to crude oil. The shale formations now being tapped in the U.S. are something else altogether. They contain natural gas, crude oil other liquid hydrocarbons that drillers can just bring to the surface and sell without much processing.

Estonia's shale industry directly employs about 6,500 people, or 1.1 percent of the country's workforce, and accounts for up to 3 percent of the nation's economy, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

"We have almost a 100 years' experience working with oil shale in Estonia. If you know something, and if there's a market, you try to sell it," said Tarmu Aas, a board member at Eesti Energia, a state-owned utility that accounts for nearly all the country's shale and electricity production.

By 2016, the country also hopes to begin mass-producing high-quality automotive diesel, a technology that would significantly boost the commodity's value.

"Estonia has put itself on the map of the world with oil shale. In this particular technology we're good, we're the masters," said Konstantin Dotsenko, an Estonian energy trader.

The question, he explained, is whether world oil prices will remain high enough to keep oil shale viable.

Aas said that for decades there's been virtually no market for shale oil -- the price for which is not quoted separately but as a rule is slightly cheaper than heavy fuel used to heat homes and power industrial boilers -- since crude oil has been so cheap.

In fact, in the late 1990s, when oil prices plummeted, there was talk of mothballing the entire industry. But now that crude is relatively expensive, and could remain so, Aas said the windows of opportunity for Estonia are beginning to open.

Although they don't exclude a sharp decline in demands and prices in the case of a severe global crisis, analysts generally believe oil prices will remain at between $80 and $100 a barrel as the threat of a global oil shortage all but disappears.

Additionally, as the U.S. shale gas revolution picks up pace, all energy prices could fall -- a contingency that would drain the profitability from oil shale projects.

"All signs point to those parts of the world that are growing -- China, India and others -- as being extremely large consumers of oil because the truth is that oil is the ticket to economic development, and always has been," said Daniel Kish, a senior vice-president at the Washington, D.C.-based research and policy group Institute for Energy Research.

"When countries begin consuming large amounts of oil, they amplify human strength and become wealthier ... oil prices are likely to remain at a pretty high rate."

Kish said no one is sure what the global oil shale market is worth since the resource is so poorly studied, but that could change as countries look to nonconventional fuel sources.

"Personally I think the prospects are good, and largely because there will be continuing demand for the fuel ... which is a high-quality fuel," he said.

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