The truth about oil shale

It’s been called fool’s gold for a reason. When Exxon terminated the Colony Oil Shale Project in 1982, Americans living around the Piceance Basin near Parachute Creek, Colorado began referring to that day as Black Sunday due to the disastrous effects it had on their communities and livelihoods.

Remarkably, industry has once again trotted out the same false and misleading arguments that oil shale development is environmentally and economically viable. Media accounts sometimes depict this resource as ready to solve all our energy needs despite decades of fruitless research and failed attempts to create a commercial oil shale industry.


In truth there has yet to be a shred of science to demonstrate that this dirty fuel can be developed in an environmentally sound way — let alone in a fashion that does not waste taxpayer money. Even if it were possible, oil shale represents a push toward the wrong energy source at the wrong time. Instead of placing the United States at the forefront of sustainable, green energies, our nation’s push to develop oil shale would tie us to one of the dirtiest fuels conceivable and exponentially raise our carbon dioxide emissions.

Chief among the concerns remain the big unknowns of how oil shale development might stress the water and energy needs of the arid states where shale is found. This is especially worrisome at a time when global warming promises to increase the frequency and severity of drought in these same places. Communities throughout the Colorado River Basin rely on water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, yet oil shale corporations have already begun locking up these key resources in the event they find a technological breakthrough.

The Bush administration pushed through last minute oil shale regulations in order to benefit their friends in industry. Despite the fact that neither Shell nor any other companies have developed a viable and environmentally safe commercial process for extracting oil from oil shale, the Bush administration prematurely issued regulations to allow for commercial oil shale development on public lands over the objections of the Governors of Colorado and Wyoming, many local elected officials, agricultural and municipal water users, the agricultural community and other local business leaders. They did this even though industry already privately owns thousands of acres of land with oil shale potential and still has not developed a viable and environmentally safe technology.

The Bush rules were deficient in numerous respects. In particular, they rob American taxpayers by imposing exceedingly low federal royalties — as low as 5% compared to the 12.5% to 16% royalty charged by the federal government for onshore and offshore oil and gas leases. Not surprisingly, they also include vague environmental protection requirements because we do not yet even know what a commercial oil shale industry might look like.

Among the decision makers who attempted to slow the federal government’s headlong rush to push oil shale at the expense of local communities was former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. Now Obama’s Secretary of Interior, Salazar has drawn fire for his February decision to suspend the Bush administration's new round of oil shale research and development leases that locked in industry-friendly rules.

The kicker? The Bush Administration added an “addendum” to already existing leases for “research, development and demonstration” issued in 2005. The addendum allows the lessees to choose whether or not any future commercial development on public lands will be governed by the Bush rules, or rules adopted by the Obama Administration, or any future program determined by Congress. This addendum essentially locks in the Bush administration’s industry-friendly rules on leases for oil shale research and development and hamstrings Sec. Salazar, keeping him from altering the program to better fit the nation’s interest.


Chase Huntley
Policy Advisor, Energy & Climate Change

Drew Bush
Senior Communications Associate

Dave Slater
Senior Communications Director, Public Lands Campaign

David Alberswerth
Senior Energy Policy Advisor

Steve Smith
Assistant Regional Director, Central Rockies Regional Office
303-650-5818 x 106

Oil shale development, Mahogany Flats Research Station near Rangeley, Colorado. Photo by Randy Udall, Courtesy SkyTruth.
Oil shale. Courtesy DOE.
Spent shale after retorting, Uinta Basin, Utah. Courtesy EIS Information Center.