The Stuart Oil Shale Project

McFarland, J.D. (Southern Pacific Petroleum NL/Central Pacific Minerals NL) | Hopkins, P.D. (Suncor Energy Australia Pty Ltd.)



The A$250 million Stuart Stage 1 Oil Shale Project in Queensland, Australia is one of the most significant new developments in the non-conventional oil industry. The Stuart Project is a joint venture between Australian companies Southern Pacific Petroleum N.L. and Central Pacific Minerals N.L. (SPP/CPM), and Canada's Suncor Energy Inc. (Suncor). An important milestone was reached in 1999 with completion of construction of the Stuart Stage 1 technology demonstration plant. This 4,500 b/d (715 m3/d) plant, constructed by Bechtel, is currently being commissioned by Suncor, the project operator.

The Stuart oil shale deposit has an estimated in situ resource of 3 billion barrels of shale oil. The Stuart Project incorporates the Alberta-Taciuk Processor (ATP), a new generation of oil-shale retorting technology which was chosen following a A$150 million R&D program in the 1980s. Upon technical and operational success in Stage 1, the next step is to scale up the ATP in Stage 2 to a commercial sized module producing 15,000 b/d (2,350 m3/d). This could lead to a commercial scale operation of at least 85,000 b/d (13,500 m3/d).

Success at Stuart will have important implications for Australia in terms of job creation and development of a new source of indigenous oil supply. It could also be important for world oil supply given the immense size of the world's oil shale resource.


Despite the immense size and pervasive nature of the world's oil shale resource, large-scale commercial development has yet to be achieved. Oil shale industries have operated in many countries since the 19th century, but the development of relatively inexpensive and plentiful supplies of conventional crude oil in the first half of the 20th century made most of these operations redundant.

The oil crisis of the early 1970s triggered a new and significant round of expenditures in oil shale research and development, particularly in the carbonate oil shales of the Green River Formation in the western USA. However, disappointing performance, falling oil prices and reduced government support took their toll and most of this effort ceased by the late 1980s.

This paper describes the most significant new development in the oil shale industry, the A$250 million Stuart Stage 1 technology demonstration project in Queensland, Australia which is currently in the final phases of commissioning. The project is designed to process 6,000 t/d of oil shale to produce 4,500 b/d (715 m3/d) of oil products. Partners in this joint venture include two Australian based companies, Southern Pacific Petroleum N.L. and Central Pacific Minerals N.L. (SPP/CPM) and Suncor Energy Inc. (Suncor), the project operator and a major oil sands producer based in Canada.

Stuart is one of a number of high quality oil shale deposits in Queensland that are favourably located near deepwater ports and existing infrastructure.


Australia is no stranger to oil shale development. Production from oil shale deposits in the states of Tasmania and New South Wales dates back to the 1860s. The last producing mines closed in the early 1950s after government support ended. Between 1865 and 1952 about 4 million tonnes of oil shale were processed.(1)

An exploration program was carried out by SPP/CPM in the 1970s and early 1980s to find high quality oil shale deposits amenable to open-pit mining operations in areas near infrastructure and deepwater ports. This program was successful in finding a number of silica based oil shale deposits of commercial significance along the coast of eastern Queensland (see Figure 1).