FORTUNE:

Oil from a stone

By Jon Birger, Fortune senior writer

Problem was, the prevailing production process - known as surface retorting - was dirty and inefficient. Federal subsidies masked the problems, encouraging companies to build businesses they never would have created on shareholders' dimes. When oil prices collapsed, so did the economic rationale for shale oil. The day Exxon left town in 1982, turning some communities into ghost towns, is still remembered in northwestern Colorado as "Black Sunday."

The basic problem with surface retorting was that shale had to be mined, transported, crushed and then cooked at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Not only were there toxic waste byproducts, but the oil thus produced had to be purified and infused with hydrogen before it could be refined into gasoline and other products. Vinegar may be a physicist by training, but he thinks like an MBA, and to him such a labor- and energy-intensive process reeked of bad economics.

Wouldn't it be better, he thought, if Shell could extract a liquid that could be pumped and pipelined instead of a solid that had to be mined and trucked? Upon visiting a Shell surface-retorting site for the first time in 1979, he came to a quick, life-changing conclusion: "Wow, we're going to have to do this in situ."

The term "in situ" is Latin for "in place." In an engineering context, it means liquefying the oil shale while it is still underground. That is what Vinegar set out to do. The Eureka moment came in 1981. During a field experiment in Colorado, Vinegar and his colleagues set up camp on a patch of Shell-owned land where the oil shale was close to the surface. Then they drilled seven 20-foot wells within a 36-square-foot zone.

They inserted heating rods into six of the holes and positioned the seventh as a production well. "It was a very low-budget operation," Vinegar chuckles. "The oil would drain into the production well, and every morning we used a fishing pole with a little bailer on the bottom to get it out."

Most of the oil Vinegar and his colleagues collected was, in his estimation, "gunky." However, Vinegar noticed that when temperatures in the ground were still comparatively low, the oil recovered was light and pure. "It was almost optically clear, and that fascinated me," he says. "What was it that allowed us to make this beautiful-quality product early on but not later on?"

Answering that question took years of lab work, but the company dug in. "Shell continued doing research, even in the 1980s when most everyone else quit," says Glenn Vawter admiringly. Vawter, a veteran of Exxon's failed oil shale operation, is now an executive with an oil shale startup, EGL Resources. In 1998 - when the price for West Texas crude crashed to less than $15 a barrel - Shell spent $799 million on R&D; by comparison, the larger Exxon Mobil spent $549 million.

In 2006, Shell spent $855 million on R&D to Exxon (Charts, Fortune 500)'s $733 million. Both Vinegar and Shell Vice President for Unconventional Production John Barry confirm that oil shale is now the biggest piece of the company's R&D budget, though neither will specify exactly how much has been spent. One source briefed by Shell officials puts the total oil shale R&D investment at north of $200 million.

Shell has long been known for its science. It invented the first semi-submersible offshore drilling rig and pioneered the use of steam flooding to maximize oil well production; it's also the industry leader in natural-gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. Much of its research originates at its Bellaire Research Center in Houston, where Vinegar has spent most of his career.

The lab's most famous alumnus is the late M. King Hubbert, of Hubbert's Peak fame. Hubbert was the first geologist to understand the mechanics of oilfield depletion and the first to make a reasonably accurate assessment of recoverable oil reserves - initially for the U.S. and later for the world. The founding father of peak-oil theory, Hubbert predicted that U.S. production of conventional oil would peak around 1970 (he was right) and that global oil production would taper off after 2000 (he was wrong, though by how much is the topic of heated debate).

Neither Vinegar nor Barry wants to get drawn into a discussion of peak-oil theory. They simply state that the rapid growth in worldwide oil demand necessitates the development of unconventional oils. (Shell has also invested in biofuels and solar power.)

That said, it's no coincidence the oil company Hubbert once called home is the one now making the biggest bet on unconventional oil - not only oil shale but GTL and Canadian tar sands too. Jim Spehar, a former Colorado community-relations consultant for Shell, remembers company scientists and executives talking at length about peak oil - and about oil shale as a potential "bridge" between conventional oil and renewable energy - when he worked for Shell in the late 1990s.

"They definitely believed that the conventional stuff being pumped out of the ground was a declining resource," Spehar says.

Vinegar and the Shell team of chemists, engineers and physicists eventually figured out why the oil they collected early in that 1981 field test was so light and clean and the later samples so dark and dirty. They found that a slower, lower-temperature process - 650 degrees Fahrenheit, versus the 1,000 degrees required in the retorting process - allows more of the hydrogen molecules that are liberated from the kerogen during heating to react with carbon compounds and form a better oil.

This was a crucial discovery, because one of the hallmarks of a light oil - the most valuable kind because it costs less to refine - is its elevated hydrogen content.

Best of all, Shell was able to replicate the lab results in several field tests; the most recent one, in 2005, yielded 1,700 barrels of light oil. In that test, carefully engineered heating rods were inserted several hundred feet into the ground in order to gradually raise the temperature of the oil shale to 650 degrees Fahrenheit. Now Shell had a proven technology that it believed could produce a barrel of oil for $30.

It also knew it could recover a lot more oil than surface retorting did, since the heating rods and wells reach the entire deposit, not just the oil shale close enough to the surface to be mined. There was just one problem: Except for a few small patches of land that it owned, it didn't have access to the deposits. More than 80 percent of U.S. oil shale is on federal property, including nearly all the most desirable drilling sites. And no mechanism existed for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to lease this land for oil shale exploration or production.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 changed that. It required the BLM to set up a process for granting "research development and demonstration leases" to companies seeking to develop oil shale. Under the terms of the RD&D leases, companies whose applications pass muster are given a ten-year lease on 160 acres.

Sponsors
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.