Original article can be found at Headwaters News
Originally published on August 6, 2009 By Patty Limerick and Jason L. Hanson


“The Center of the American West probes the West’s oil shale resources and the past and future efforts to pull the oil out of its rocky bed” by Patty Limerick and Jason L. Hanson Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana’s famous aphorism

Contrary to the assumption made by that very quotable George Santayana, history has never been a particularly good performer when it comes to delivering clear lessons and warnings. On the contrary, when it comes to offering us down-to-earth guidance, history has a vexing way of turning cryptic and coy.

And yet, when it comes to the development of oil shale in the American West, history seems to speak with a clear voice. There have been two episodes in which Americans tried to develop this resource, and both episodes followed an unambiguous course of a boom followed by a crash. This undisputable historical fact turns into a very clear warning sign: “SLOW DOWN. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.” And yet history, returning to its usual habits of indirection, does not add the word, “STOP.

To the best of our knowledge, everyone dealing with oil shale sees and acknowledges history’s recommendation of caution. We have never met or heard of people who think it would be a fine idea to plunge ahead and launch yet another boom that lands in a heap. If such people exist, we hope to hear from them.

When it comes to the future of the American West, how we think about the history of oil shale is of immediate and direct consequence. No place in the world matches this region in the abundance of this resource. The Shale Country region that straddles the T-shaped border of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming holds enough oil shale to dwarf the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

But oil shale is a resource of unusual persnickityness. Dark-hued rocks found in pockets along the Western Slope of the Rockies contain a high concentration of petroleum-like kerogens that will ignite when exposed to enough heat. An individual or group with hopes to put this resource to commercial use must extract the oil from the rock by mimicking the natural geologic process that produced conventional deposits of oil and gas, the process that will eventually take place in Shale Country over millennia if the rock is left undisturbed.

Twice in the twentieth century, with the start of World War One and then with the energy crisis of the 1970s, anxiety about the nation’s energy security prompted the federal government to encourage the development of oil shale. Federal support artificially stimulated large-scale rushes based on the hope that, with enough money and effort, industry would discover a viable, cost-effective technology. But then, as the price for oil declined and the nation’s energy anxiety subsided, the commitment to a long-shot resource like oil shale waned. The artificial booms collapsed into very real busts. On the Western Slope of Colorado, the “Black Sunday” bust in 1982 marked an extraordinary episode of big hopes and ambitions hitting the rocks.

And this is where George Santayana’s famed aphorism tempts us with a persuasive, but misleading relevance. If you think about oil shale and then contemplate that ringing phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” your next step might be to conclude that only the most afflicted of amnesiacs would ever imagine going for another ride on that ill-fated oil-shale boom-to-bust cycle.

And yet noting the weakness in Santayana’s premise offers us an antidote to fatalism and a spirit-squishing sense of inevitability. History does not, actually, have much capacity to repeat itself. Even if certain episodes in the past strike us as intensely familiar, with historical patterns periodically lumbering into the world like ghosts defiant of their quarantine in time, the terrain in which those ghosts now try to operate has, in fact, undergone dramatic change. The passage of time simply delivers too much in the way of variation, changeability, improbability, and contingency.

Consider, as one example of this transformation of context, the extraordinary innovations produced by human ingenuity. In order to conclude that past failures to find a viable technology for converting shale into oil provide conclusive evidence that all future efforts will fail, a person must ignore an unmistakable fact of history: the extraordinary powers of human ingenuity have the power to knock even the most reasonable and sensible predictions for a loop.

In the past, producing oil from shale required a very disruptive process of digging the rock out of the ground and processing it in huge ovens (called retorts) on the surface of the land. But human ingenuity cooked up an alternative known as “the in-situ method.” In-situ procedures heat the rock artificially (there are a variety of methods to do this under consideration) until liquefied oil is ready to be pumped to the surface through wells.

The invention of the in-situ process has the potential to transform the prospect of oil shale development in ways unimagined during the earlier booms and busts, raising a very different set of questions about environmental impacts and the scale of investment and infrastructure than those raised by surface processing. And, just as consequentially, very big changes in cultural preferences and political practices have produced a context that bears little or no resemblance to the circumstances of the past, making it even more unlikely that history will repeat itself.

Consider the drastic changes in attitudes toward the semi-arid landscapes of the West, the terrain now recognized as rich in oil shale. In the past, the majority of Americans looked at those places and classified them as unappealing wastelands,

dominated by ratty plants and uncharismatic animals. And now, as anyone involved in extractive industries could certainly testify, it would be hard to find a square inch of the landscape of the American West that has not enlisted a full complement of enthusiasts, devotees, advocates and defenders.

When this new appreciation for the beauty of dry places converged with an extraordinary set of environmental laws passed by Congress in the 1960s and 1970s, the playing field for oil shale development was utterly transformed. Just coming into play at the time of the last oil shale boom and not fully defined then, features of the new laws gave an unprecedented power to public participation in decisions about the use of natural resources, while also offering abundant new opportunities for registering opposition through litigation.

And, just as important, after decades in which Americans burned fossil fuels with indifference and inattention to the impacts of the substances that combustion released to the atmosphere, we now live in a world in which these “externalities” refuse every effort to dismiss or discount them.

The actual past, well-stocked with changes as substantive and far-reaching these, is too tangled, variable, and contingent to ever get around to repeating itself. Not only has the passage of time transformed the circumstances and conditions under which decisions about oil shale’s future will be made, there is surprisingly little evidence of historical amnesia. A significant number of Westerners remember a lot about the dramatic booms and busts in oil shale’s development, especially the crash of 1982. Both supporters and opponents of development actively seek lessons from the past. But the attention to the past can deepen conflict, rather than encouraging resolution, since there are as many possible historical lessons as there are people who would like to enlist those lessons to support their particular cause.

Far from drifting along in a predetermined and fated passage through time, Westerners now wrestle with big questions that are derived from, but not answered, by the history of oil shale:

  • Can a new generation of oil shale developers, fully aware of the errors and troubles of their predecessors, choose a different approach and work with local communities in ways that create a sustainable positive impact on society and the economy?
  • Can the processes of transforming shale into oil be restrained, directed, and managed to preserve the habitat needed by wildlife and native plants? Can the development of oil shale accommodate and cohabit with established economic enterprises like ranching or recreation?
  • Even with the less disruptive surface impacts of in-situ production, can groundwater be successfully protected from contamination? How much water will this industry require? Whose interests will yield if this use of water becomes a priority?
  • Can the process of production be powered in a way that safeguards the area’s impressive air quality? Are there ways to manage the carbon footprint of developing—and then burning—this fossil fuel so that it will not add to the world’s troubles with climate change?

We hope that our recent report, What Every Westerner Should Know About Oil Shale: A Guide to Shale Country provides an occasion for the kind of civil discussion that is a precondition for wise decisions. In this report, you will see our effort to frame a current issue with historical perspective, while recognizing that history provides warnings, raises vitally important questions, and then leaves us to negotiate and choose our own path into the future.

Anyone who claims to know the future of the oil shale industry by projecting a clear trajectory from history needs a “time-out” to recover from over-confidence. To presume that the failures of the past set the terms for the future for oil shale is to discount the powers of the human mind to contemplate the past and to draw from it, not a fatalistic and resigned deference to unbreakable cycles, but a more thoughtful and responsible approach to the future.

Patty Limerick is the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she is also a Professor of History.

Jason L. Hanson is a member of the Research Faculty at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder.