VERNAL — A controversial proposal from the tiny nation of Estonia to develop oil shale in Utah holds a promise of many new jobs and a huge new revenue source for the Vernal area.
Oil shale is a vast resource that has never been successfully developed in Utah. Oil shale contains a pre-cursor to oil known as Kerogen. With processing the material can be converted into crude oil. Representatives of an Estonian company say the oil shale found in the region where Utah, Colorado and Wyoming meet contains three times the amount of oil in Saudi Arabia.
The company, Enefit, is wholly owned by the government of Estonia. The nation has a long track record of turning oil shale into crude oil. Enefit America CEO, Rikki Hrenko believes the company's proposal could finally turn Utah's oil shale into a money-maker.
"We're quite confident that our production price is going to make this an economic venture," Hrenko said. "Oil shale is what Enefit does. That's our bread and butter. And we really are the world's leading expert in terms of oil shale."
The small European country tucked into the Gulf of Finland has been strip mining oil shale for over a hundred years. 90 percent of the nation's electricity is produced from oil shale.
According to local legends, an Estonian peasant was building a sauna when he realized that the rocks themselves caught fire. Power plants built by Russians during decades of Soviet domination burn the oil shale to produce the energy. The plants also send hot water by pipeline to heat some of the nation's homes and office buildings.
With our technology, I don't see any problems or any impacts to the environment that will be very big.
–Igor Kant, Estonia's Oil & Gas Plant CEO
Many Utahns have traveled to Estonia to see first-hand the country's success with oil shale.
"The value for Utah is probably 3,000 long-term jobs, something similar to what Kennecott Copper is in the Salt Lake Valley," said District 26 state senator Kevin Van Tassell while standing in one of Estonia's mining areas. However, some members of the Estonian Parliament have concerns about the international business venture.
"Me personally, I'm not really against this," said parliament member Olga Sutnik. "But there are some people in our party who is very suspicious about this project."
She said many members of parliament would prefer to see a comparable investment in Estonia's domestic needs instead of on a project in Utah with an uncertain future.
Some Estonians also believe the entire industry is too dirty to rely on for future energy needs and would prefer to see more investment in renewable energy sources.
"We are making an effort here to build up the carbon-free future," said Valdur Lahtvee, a prominent Estonian environmentalist who once worked for Enefit.
However, Enefit officials argue that renewables cannot replace world demand for oil anytime in the near future.
"With our technology, I don't see any problems or any impacts to the environment that will be very big," said Estonia's Oil & Gas Plant CEO Igor Kant.
The Estonian company has already removed 3,000 tons of oil shale from Utah and shipped it to Germany for testing.
Estonian news media have claimed that leaked documents suggest trouble during the testing. However, the economics minister has denied the allegations.
"So far, what I can really confirm is that the development phase is on track," said Estonia's Minister of Economy and Education Johan Parts.
In a future story, KSL will explore in more detail the environmental controversies swirling around the Enefit proposal.