At any given moment, 20 million people are video chatting with friends and relatives in distant lands. Skype, the ingenious software that makes this possible, was developed in Estonia, a tiny nation in northern Europe, hard on the Baltic Sea.
Ocean-going tribes, sometimes called “pagan raiders,” have lived in Estonia for thousands of years. During World War II, Estonia was invaded, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, before being overrun again by the Soviets at the end of the war. The country did not regain its independence until 1991.
Today, Estonians boast of having the world’s first “digital democracy” — Internet voting — and the lowest debt levels in Europe. It is said that a person can open a laptop in an Estonian forest and have faster download speeds than are available in most American living rooms.
Although Estonians revel in their newfound freedom, their society remains captive to a Stone Age energy system, one based on primitive and polluting technologies that it hopes to export to the United States. Estonia has no oil, coal or natural gas; what it does have is the world’s richest deposits of oil shale, stubborn rocks that only surrender their hydrocarbons if heated to 900 degrees.
Estonians burn oil shale in enormous power plants as if it were coal. They bake millions of tons each year in large ovens, or retorts, to produce fuel for ships. At one time, they used oil shale to power their locomotives.
Over the past 100 years, the Estonian oil shale industry has mined 1 billion tons of shale, polluting the nation’s land, air and water in the process. Today, a staggering 90 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide comes from shale burning. In northeastern Estonia, towering mounds of gray shale ash are visible from space. Locals refer to these barren hills, which cover 50 square miles, as the “Estonian Alps.” On one of them they’ve built a ski area. Another hosts a wind farm. Petroleum coke buried in a third alp spontaneously ignited two years ago.
As other nations embrace clean energy, Estonia continues to mine and burn 20,000 pounds of oil shale per person per year. Now, it hopes to export this expertise to America, which is troubling. Climate activists often say that Canadian tar sands represent the largest single threat to a livable climate. That’s incorrect. Far more carbon is buried in American oil shale than in Alberta tar sands.
Although there are trillions of tons of oil shale scattered around the planet, two-thirds of it is found in Colorado, Wyoming and eastern Utah, where a company called Enefit, which is wholly owned by the Estonian government, has assembled a 30,000-acre leasehold.
Over the next decade, Enefit plans to spend $5 billion building the world’s largest oil shale mine and at least four large retorts in which to bake synthetic crude oil out of crushed stone. We’ve tried –– and so far failed –– to make oil shale profitable in the United States; will Enefit’s engineers succeed in wresting energy from stubborn rocks that have defeated generations of Americans?
There are problems: The oil shale in Utah is not nearly as rich as that in Estonia. Indeed, there’s more energy in a ton of dried pig manure than in a ton of Utah’s shale. It’s also not clear whether American shale can be successfully processed using Enefit’s complicated machines.
But it all goes according to plan, by 2024, the company hopes to blast, mine, haul, crush and retort about 30 million tons of shale rocks each year — about 5,000 dump-truck loads each day.
Many uncertainties remain. Is there enough water to support this heavy industry? How will Enefit reclaim the vast mounds of spent shale it will produce? Does burning oil shale make any sense in a state so blessed with untapped sunlight? So far, politicians in Utah are celebrating Enefit’s arrival. But if the regional drought lingers and Lake Powell continues to fall, this “burn, baby, burn” mindset may change.
The Estonian government has agreed to subsidize Enefit’s efforts to export its technology to Jordan, Morocco and the United States. Not all of Estonia’s citizens are pleased. “Why should the taxpayer risk half a billion kroons in a Middle-Eastern desert,” an Estonian mining engineer asks. “Does it really make sense to process 100,000 tons of American oil shale to produce 10,000 tons of liquid fuel?”
Excellent questions, but what is a “kroon,” you might ask. Kroons were once the local currency in Estonia. Then, when the country adopted the Euro, the old banknotes were compressed into bricks and burned for heating fuel. Smarter to burn those, in my view, than to burn oil shale.
Randy Udall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about energy in Carbondale.