Online Oil Shale Report Released by CU's Center of the American West

Published: June 10, 2009

According to Colorado lore, a settler named Mike Callahan came to the state's Western Slope in 1882 and settled along Parachute Creek. He built a log cabin from the sturdy pines of the area and finished it off with a fireplace and chimney made from the abundant rocks he found on nearby hills. But when he lit a fire in the hearth his housewarming suddenly took on new meaning when the chimney rocks burst into flames, engulfing the entire house.

Callahan discovered too late that the Piceance Basin is full of flammable rock called oil shale, and in the decades to follow it would become the center of a major debate among landowners, oil companies, environmentalists and the government.

The University of Colorado at Boulder's Center of the American West has put together an online report titled "What Every Westerner Should Know About Oil Shale" to help bring an impartial perspective to the debate over oil shale. After two previous booms and busts, including a regionally devastating downturn in the early 1980s, it looks like another oil shale development cycle is on the horizon. It's a prospect local residents, policymakers and concerned citizens throughout the country regard with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.

The report was authored by history Professor Patty Limerick, faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West's board, and Jason Hanson, a member of the center's research staff since 2004.

Hanson said the intent of the report is "to provide a safe port in the storm of data disputes that usually rage on topics like this. We want to encourage a more responsible, more informed and more productive decision-making process."

Said Limerick, "As a historian, I've read as much as I care to read and studied as much as I care to study about people acting in haste. I really don't need more of that. So it was great for me to look at a situation where there is such a process of deliberation going on."

Two years in the making, the online report details the first two oil shale booms on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains -- where the world's largest supplies of the substance lie trapped beneath the surface -- and the reasons those efforts ultimately failed.

Looking ahead to the new round of oil shale development, Limerick and Hanson survey efforts currently under way in Colorado and Utah. The report examines ways in which energy companies and other stakeholders can anticipate and manage the variety of social, economic and environmental issues raised by the prospect of creating an oil shale industry in the mountain West.

The report does not suggest that past failures necessarily predict the future for oil shale. Limerick is quick to point out that almost every human enterprise is met with adversity at first and that the day could come when oil extracted from shale is flowing out of the West by the barrel.

"There are unknowns and uncertainties," Limerick said. "There is certainly no guarantee that this will work. But its failure is not predictable, either. History offers a remarkable record of human ingenuity powering past obstacles."

Judicious estimates suggest that 800 billion barrels -- more than triple Saudi Arabia's proven reserves and enough to meet current U.S. demand for more than a century -- might one day be extracted from the Green River Formation along the T-shaped border of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The richest known deposits are located in Colorado's Piceance Basin, an area of more than 1,300 square miles just north of Grand Junction.

One of the major environmental concerns related to U.S. oil shale development is water. Current research estimates that commercial production could require about three barrels of water for every barrel of oil, an amount many people say would be devastating in the arid West where many different interests already compete for every gallon.

Hanson said the Center of the American West takes no position either for or against oil shale production. The report grew out of a workshop funded by Chevron and people involved in its preparation on different sides of the debate have praised it.

"It's a very well balanced, very well done, comprehensive report and it has a particularly excellent historical review of oil shale in terms of the efforts that have been done in the past and kind of drawing attention to the issues that oil shale development brings to a region," said Tracy Boyd, communications and sustainability manager for Shell Exploration and Production Company on Unconventional Oil.

Karin Sheldon, executive director of Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law and policy organization headquartered in Boulder, agreed.

"I think the center's report is terrific," Sheldon said. "It gives a good overview of the issues involved in oil shale development. It's an important document for public education and to help inform the debate that we all need to have about oil shale."

Limerick is glad to see all sides on the question of oil shale development talking about the issues involved.

"It's spirit-lifting to see a society thinking, 'No, we need to really think before we move ahead on this,' " said Limerick. "At long last, we have gotten to a stage of trying to think as hard as we can about our actions and their likely consequences. This seems like a really great act of maturation as a group of human beings."

The online report will be updated to stay current with recent developments. It also will feature space for comments and discussion from stakeholders who have an interest in oil shale development.

See the CU-Boulder Center of the American West's report "What Every Westerner Should Know About Oil Shale" at

A CU-Boulder video news release on the topic can be accessed at by clicking on the headline about the oil shale report.