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Obama's big oil decision

Bush opened the door to oil shale, a huge energy source. Will Obama close the door too soon?

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Despite his hopes for renewable energy, Barack Obama faces tough choices early in his term on whether to extract more oil within the US. Americans are still years, maybe decades, from kicking the oil habit. One reserve – with at least a century of supply – lies below the Rockies. Will a "green" president ignore this black ooze?

This immense reserve is called oil shale, although the "oil" is not ready for refineries nor is the surface rock that traps it really shale. Rather, the sediments, which extend across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, contain a waxy hydrocarbon called kerogen that, either with heat or chemical processing underground, can be turned into synthetic oil.

The certainty stops there, however, as several oil firms such as Shell and Chevron test ways to extract the substance as cheaply, cleanly, and with as little water and electricity as possible. Whether they can do all that is Mr. Obama's urgent dilemma – one imposed on him by President Bush.

In November, the Interior Department issued rules, which take effect before Jan. 20, that open a path for commercial development of oil shale by 2015, or within a two-term Obama administration.

Why the rush? Two reasons. First, the world's production of traditional crude will peak in about 12 years, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), creating a potential for global conflict. And second, America's oil shale could yield up to 800 billion barrels of oil, or "three Saudi Arabia's."


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