Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Environmental Renaissance: PNNL researchers master the art of predictive sciences that use environmental stories of the past to paint a balanced future

Balancing oil and environment...responsibly

As the price of oil continues to fluctuate unpredictably and nears the brink of depletion, pursuing unconventional oil supplies, such as oil shale, oil sands, heavy oils, and oils from biomass and coal, has become increasingly attractive. Of particular significance to the American way is that our continent has significant quantities of these resources.

Tapping into these new resources, however, requires cutting-edge technologies for identification, production, processing, and environmental management.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and fellow Battelle-managed national laboratories are pooling their expertise to deliver these solutions. Collaboratively, the laboratories are integrating their research and technologies for industry leaders. While tackling the problem as a team will give the United States a competitive edge in leading the way toward global solutions, researchers recognize that it is all for naught if these resources are tapped at cost to the environment.

Fortunately, PNNL is home to some of the world's leading environmental experts. One team, led by Wally Weimer, the Laboratory's industrial market sector leader for the oil and gas industry, is working hard to understand the opportunity and responsibly engage in unconventional oil recovery.

"Industry has the ability to transition our technology discoveries and innovations into working solutions," Weimer said. "It's very exciting to see how government-sponsored research can come together for industrial clients to address an issue that's important to all of us."

The basic research has been under way for years, and PNNL has emerged as a leader for addressing several environmental aspects of this project, including the protection of surface water and groundwater resources. As it turns out, unconventional oil resources tend to locate near areas that are water-limited, creating an enhanced need for protection of these resources. Another area of environmental concern is carbon emissions. The development and utilization of unconventional resources will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; these emissions over time could potentially impact global climate and air quality. Researchers at PNNL are using predictive computer modeling to understand these effects and to develop technologies that can stop the problems before they start.

A rescue is being attempted. With the collaboration among its peer national laboratories, PNNL plans to be part of the solution that solves the problems with new sources for oil...and at the same time protects the environment.

Breakthroughs Magazine

In this issue...