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Clean and Secure Energy from Domestic Oil Shale and Oil Sands Resources
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The Institute for Clean and Secure Energy (ICSE) is pursuing research to improve industry’s ability to utilize the vast energy stored in domestic oil shale and oil sands resources in a manner that will minimize environmental impact and effectively capture the combustion CO2 from production, upgrading, and refining of the produced liquid fuel. The objective of this research is to perform engineering, scientific, and legal research directed toward the development of oil shale and oil sands resources in Utah.


University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Close-up of fractured oil shale specimen from the Uinta Basin, Utah, showing weathered (white) and unweathered (black) surfaces. Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.
Close-up of fractured oil shale specimen from the Uinta Basin, Utah, showing weathered (white) and unweathered (black) surfaces. Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

New sources of hydrocarbons are needed to meet increasing U.S. demand for oil. Oil sands and oil shale resources have the potential to increase domestic oil production, thereby meeting at least part of America’s growing oil demand.

In today’s environment, oil shale/oil sands development faces numerous technical, environmental, and legal challenges. Research to address these complex issues is necessary for the promotion of a viable commercial industry for liquid fuel production from oil shale/sands. The ICSE technical research program is organized around the theme of validation and uncertainty quantification through tightly coupled simulation and experimental design integrated with the legal, environmental, economic, and policy assessments required to achieve the dual goals of clean and secure energy from domestic oil sands and oil shale resources.

The research targets include:

  • Basin-scale oil shale and oil sands development
  • In situ thermal processing
  • Environmental, legal, economic, and policy framework and assessment

This research will support and may accelerate the cost-effective and environmentally safe development of the nation’s domestic oil sands/oil shale industry for production of secure liquid fuels.

This validation research brings together multi-scale experimental measurements—from molecular scale through pore scale and, ultimately, reservoir or basin scale computer simulations—to enhance our understanding of the geology and in situ processing parameters controlling efficient production of oil shale and oil sands resources. Knowledge gained from this research will apply to most, if not all, industry processes and, in particular, those processes that utilize in situ methods for resource recovery. In situ recovery techniques are the primary focus of this research because of their potential for reducing the environmental footprint of oil shale/sands development.

Research focused on processing oil shale and oil sands will be integrated with research addressing the legal, policy, and environmental framework surrounding development of oil shale and oil sands in the western basins and, in particular, those resources within the Uinta Basin in Utah.

Accomplishments (most recent listed first)

Phase II research accomplishments: 
Researchers finalized the emission factors and their ranges for oil and gas operations in the Uinta Basin. They also made three improvements to their conventional oil and gas simulation model. These improvements include: (1) switched to a cumulative production equation for predicting oil and gas production, (2) developed a method for forecasting oil and gas price paths based on EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook price forecasts and the forecasting error, and (3) added capability to model production from existing wells.

Researchers have successfully completed efforts to simulate heater experiments conducted by American Shale Oil, LLC (AMSO) at their pilot test facility in Rifle, CO. The simulation was able to capture the small fluid time scales occurring in the fluid around the heater inside the lower lateral and the larger solid time scales occurring in the solid shale formation. Simulation results matched experimental results at various tomography wells to within 0.5 K over a three-month period. This close agreement of simulation and experimental data had not been possible using any other simulation strategies. These results were presented at the STAR Global Conference in March 2014.

The research team has developed a water balance model for conventional oil and gas development in the Uinta Basin. Analyses showed that, for the period from 2007 to 2013, conventional oil and gas production was a net zero water user or very small water producer, producing approximately 0.16 ± 0.24 (at the 95 percent confidence interval) barrels of water per barrel of oil. In addition, the team has developed an improved drilling schedule model to predict future drilling activity in the basin. The centralized framework coding for integration of the drilling schedule model and the water balance model is nearly complete and will be used to model future impacts to the basin due to oil and gas production activities.    

The research team has gathered and assessed emission inventories for oil and gas emissions in the Uinta Basin as well as emissions projections developed by the Utah Division of Air Quality. Emissions factors for CO2 equivalent, methane, and non-methane volatile organic carbons have been established.

Research and analyses on three different sections of the Skyline 16 core [Uintah County, Utah, T11S, R25E, Sec. 9, UTM E 661444, UTM N 4415107 (NAD83)] obtained in May 2010 have been the focus of several project tasks. Thermogravimetric analysis (TGA) experiments on several small cored subsamples and powdered samples of the Skyline 16 core have been completed and core samples have been examined using 3-D multi-scale x-ray tomography to understand pore-scale transport processes of oil shale pyrolysis. Pressurized and atmospheric thermogravimetric analysis experiments on pulverized core samples have been completed and analyzed to determine product bulk properties and composition. Condensable pyrolysis products have been collected and analyzed in a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) for identification of the major components. Recently, researchers studying the geomechanical properties of the cores completed triaxial and creep testing on several core samples. Additionally, an N-S cross section of the Green River Formation using data acquired from the Skyline 16 core has been completed. This cross section complements the E-W section map completed during Phase I, and together they represent the first-ever complete cross-section description of the Uinta Basin.

The ICSE used the commercial software Star-CCM+ to develop a high performance computing computational fluid dynamics (CFD)-based simulation tool to study thermal heating of oil shale inside the ECOSHALE capsule developed by Red Leaf Resources.

ICSE researchers have completed first generation simulations of the AMSO rubblized bed. This effort included development of the computational domain of a characteristic section of the heater using discrete element methods, CFD, and thermal analysis. Computed heat distribution inside the test section was compared to experimental results and the findings were presented at the 32nd Oil Shale Symposium in Golden, CO in October 2012. Efforts focused on developing the stress-strain response of the oil shale under various temperature, grade, and confining pressure conditions. The response surface data collected will be used to assess subsidence. Researchers have also conducted refluxing simulations inside the lower lateral of the AMSO heater test and were able to demonstrate that temperatures measured at the heater wall are substantially greater than temperatures at the shale boundary surrounding the AMSO pilot test formation interval. This research was presented at the 33rd Oil Shale Symposium (Golden, CO) in October 2013, along with three additional presentations on ICSE oil shale research. Recently, the project team has completed simulations of the second AMSO heater test for both the fluid time scales occurring in the lower lateral well, which houses the heater and the time scales of heat dissipation throughout the solid shale formation. Results were presented at the STAR Global Conference March 2014 in Vienna Austria.

Topical reports and manuscripts completed during Phase II include:

  • Topical Report entitled, “Policy Issues Associated with Using Simulation to Assess Environmental Impacts” [PDF]
  • Special Progress Report entitled, “V/UQ of Generation 1 Simulator with AMSO Experimental Data” [PDF]
  • Draft manuscript for the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control entitled, “Oxyfiring with CO2Capture to Meet Low-Carbon Fuel Standards for Unconventional Fuels from Utah”
  • Draft manuscript for Energy & Fuels entitled, “Characterization of Macromolecular Structure Elements from a Green River Oil Shale”
  • Manuscript published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research entitled, “Characterization of Macromolecular Structure of Pyrolysis Products from a Colorado Green River Oil Shale”
  • Topical report entitled, “Policy Analysis of Canadian Oil Sands Experience”
  • Topical report entitled, “Lands with Wilderness Characteristics, Resource Management Plan Constraints, and Land Exchanges: Cross-Jurisdictional Management and Impacts on Unconventional Fuel Development in Utah’s Uinta Basin”
  • Topical report entitled, “Conjunctive Surface and Groundwater Management in Utah: Implications for Oil Shale and Oil Sands Development”
  • Topical report entitled, “Development of CFD-Based Simulation Tools for In Situ Thermal Processing of Oil Shale/Sands”

In addition to the reports listed above, ICSE completed "A Market Assessment of Oil Shale and Oil Sands Development Scenarios in Utah’s Uinta Basin"  This analysis found that for the production methods analyzed, capital costs were estimated to be on the order of $5–$6 billion dollars (for both ex situ and in situ extraction methods). Ex situ methods were found to break even at $76–$78 per barrel (depending on the retorting method), resulting in a 10 percent internal rate of return under U.S. Energy Information Administration’s reference oil price forecasts. The in situ extraction method modeled resulted in a breakeven price of $183 per barrel due primarily to the long time delays between heating and production. The models and data used in this assessment are also available on the ICSE webpage at

Phase I research accomplishments:

Skyline 16 Preliminary Core Log
Skyline 16 Preliminary Core Log
  • A preliminary synthesis and sequence stratigraphic model has been constructed for the Uinta Basin. This model will be further tested, revised, and refined based on analyses of the new, fresh core.
  • The anisotropic features of oil shale permeability have been quantified and may be the first reported 3-D imaging of pyrolyzed oil shale by HRXMT and XNT.
  • The new ICSE website was launched in January 2010 ( and water-related data and new GIS capabilities have been added to the repository's interactive map feature.
Current Status

(December 2015) The project is complete. A final project close-out meeting was held in Salt Lake City on September 17, 2015. The University of Utah is in the process of writing their final technical report as well as a text book reflecting the research knowledge gained over the life of the project related to oil shale and oil sands development.

Project Start
Project End
DOE Contribution


Performer Contribution


Contact Information

NETL – Robert Vagnetti ( or 304-285-1334)
U. of Utah – Philip Smith ( or 801-585-3129)

Additional Information

Topical Report Validation Results for Core-Scale Oil Shale Pyrolysis [PDF-2.64MB] - February, 2015

Topical Report Rates and Mechanisms of oil Shale Pyrolysis: A Chemical Structure Approach [PDF-4.20MB] - November, 2014

Topical Report - Policy Issues Associated With Using Simulation to Assess Environmental Impacts [PDF-365KB] - November, 2014

Presentation at 34TH Oil Shale Symposium - Evaluation of Well Spacing and Arrangement for In-Situ Thermal Treatment of Oil Shale Using HPC Simulation Tools [PDF-16.8MB] - October, 2014

Special Progress Report - V/UQ of Generation 1 Simulator With AMSO Experimental Data [PDF-4.76MB] - August, 2013

Topical Report - Policy Analysis of the Canadian Oil Sands Experience [PDF-632KB] - September, 2013

Topical Report - Lands with Wilderness Characteristics, Resource Management Plan Constraints, and Land Exchanges [PDF-2.82MB] - March, 2012

Topical Report - "Conjunctive Surface and Groundwater Management in Utah: Implications for Oil Shale and Oil Sands Development" [PDF-26.2MB] - May, 2012

Topical Report - "Development of CFD-Based Simulation Tools for In Situ Thermal Processing of Oil Shale/Sands"[PDF-12.1MB] - February, 2012

Topical Report - "Core-Based Integrated Sedimentologic, Stratigraphic, and Geochemical Analysis of The Oil Shale Bearing Green River Formation, Uinta Basin, Utah" [PDF-10.0MB] - April, 2011

Topical Report - "Atomistic Modeling of Oil Shale Kerogens and Asphaltenes Along with their Interactions with the Inorganic Mineral Matrix" [PDF-4.06MB] - April, 2011

Topical Report - “Pore Scale Analysis of Oil Shale/Sands Pyrolysis" [PDF-7.00MB] - March, 2011

Topical Report - “Land and Resource Management Issues Relevant to Deploying In-Situ Thermal Technologies"[PDF-2.29MB] - January, 2011

Topical Report - “Policy Analysis of Produced Water Issues Associated with In-Situ Thermal Technologies" [PDF-2.24MB] - January, 2011

Topical Report - “Policy Analysis of Water Availability and Use Issues for Domestic Oil Shale and Oil Sands Development" [PDF-9.07MB] - March, 2010