Eyes on Enefit: Oil shale extraction an environmental threat

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Contaminated groundwater, 600-foot high piles of oil shale waste that spontaneously ignite, and the emission of “lots of carbon dioxide”; all of this comes from a company that claims to be “highly dedicated to lessening the environmental impact of our production processes.” A look at the facts reveals that, despite its claims, Estonian oil shale company Eesti Energia’s operations have been anything but environmentally friendly.

For several decades Eesti Energia, an Estonian government-owned corporation, has been extracting oil shale, and using it to generate Estonian electricity at a stunning environmental cost. In the United States, Eesti Energia is known as Enefit. In 2011, Enefit bought the largest privately held oil shale reserve in Utah, and since then it has been experimenting with oil shale found on that land.

Since Eesti Energia has brought its oil shale technology to our shores through Enefit’s Utah project, we think a quick review of the company’s environmental record is in order. That way, Utahns can see what could be in store for them.

A polluted lake near an “ash” mountain in NE Estonia. Source: EcoCrete Project

First off, let’s see what the Estonians think of oil shale. A member of the Estonian Parliament described oil shale waste as a problem “for which there is no solution at present.” Researchers at Estonia’s Tallinn University of Technology and the Estonian Fund for Nature describe the oil shale industry’s environmental impacts as “huge.”

Scientists at Tartu University and the Institute of Ecology even wrote a paper in which they explain how Estonian oil shale’s waste is hazardous.

“[The] Processes of oil shale mining, combustion in power plants, and thermal processing in chemical plants generate a huge amount of solid waste…Semi-coke dumps surrounding the plants of oil shale thermal processing. Semi-coke is a residue classified as environmentally harmful due to its components like sulphides, volatile phenols, benzo(a)pyrene, etc.”

– “Artificial Mountains in North-East Estonia: Monumental Dumps of Ash and Semi-Coke.” Tartu University and the Department of North-East Estonia. 2005.

In fact, these waste products are so unstable, they have been known to spontaneously combust and contaminate groundwater and soil. As of 2005, 27 percent of oil shale landfills in Estonia had self-ignited.

“Observation of groundwater and soil illustrate that the environment close to burning landfills is contaminated with molybdenum, copper, sulphate, arsenic, oil products, and PAHs…”

– “Life Cycle Analysis of the Estonian Oil Shale Industry.” Estonian Fund for Nature and Tallinn University of Technology. 2005.

In spring 2012, The Baltic Course magazine reported that one of these massive oil shale waste piles caught fire during the winter, and still continued to burn. The magazine also noted there is, “no universal solution to extinguish such a fire.”

In addition to water and ground pollution, Eesti Energia’s CEO, Sandor Liive admitted producing energy from oil shale creates significant global warming pollution, or “lots of carbon dioxide,” as he puts it.

“The risk concerning the price of carbon dioxide is relatively high for Eesti Energia because our production involves the emission of lots of carbon dioxide.”

–  Sandor Liive, CEO Eesti Energia. Interview with Eesti Paevaleht. BBC Monitoring Europe. 04 July 2011.

Arial photo of a pile of oil shale ‘ash’ in Estonia. Source: EcoCrete Project.

Eesti Energia isn’t the only company experimenting with the rock that admits oil shale has negative environmental impacts. In 2012, Anton Dammer, a former Senior VP at oil shale company Red Leaf Resources, testified to Congress:

“I worked in Estonia for several years…The old antiquated surface retorts that [Eesti Energia] use are pretty nasty business…They produce a lot of semicoke. You know, they call them the Estonian Alps…I can’t tell you exactly all the technical details of it, but it’s – it’s much improved, but you would never want the retorts that are operating – operating in Estonia to come to the United States.”

– Anton Dammer, Senior Vice President of Red Leaf [Resources]. CQ Transcript, House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. 10 May 2012.

Eesti Energia’s environmental track record shows its claims of environmental friendliness ring hollow. Oil shale production’s health and environmental risks present a clear case against allowing oil shale companies increased access to public lands. Until they can prove they have a commercially viable technology that won’t pollute our communities’ air and water supplies with harmful waste, they shouldn’t receive more handouts.

This blog is part of a series about Enefit, known at home in Estonia as Eesti Energia, covering the company’s financial outlook, background and status of its Utah project.

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