On the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, teams of scientists and engineers are working on a feat of modern day alchemy: turning rocks into oil. The object of their attention is oil shale, a rock so rich in an oil-like substance that certain pieces will ignite when held up to a flame.

Piceance Creek
Piceance Creek runs through lands that are part of the Oldland Spur Ranch…

No place in the world has more oil shale – an amount large enough to dwarf the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia – than the American West’s Shale Country, the region that straddles the T-shaped border of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. And although daunting technical, economic, environmental, and political challenges must be dealt with before it will be a viable resource, the potential benefits attached to tapping such an immense domestic energy supply are hard to ignore. The allure of freeing the oil in these rocks has convinced some of the world’s largest energy companies (and dozens of their smaller counterparts) to place big bets on the future of oil shale.

The prospect of extracting oil from the rocks of Shale Country raises many questions, both practical and philosophical:

  • What can we learn from past experiences with oil shale and other Western resource booms, and what lessons can guide us as we move into the future?
  • Who are the stakeholders that will be affected by oil shale development? What are their rights, and what responsibilities do they have to one another?
  • Can the inherent value of a preserved environment be quantified or successfully balanced against the benefits of energy development?
  • What does the concept of sustainability mean in the context of oil shale development?

Our ability to discuss these questions as a society, and the answers we ultimately arrive at, will reverberate beyond Shale Country and through the larger debate about our nation’s energy policy in the 21st century.

About This Guide

This online guidebook to Shale Country aims to be an accessible, informative, and evenhanded overview of the compelling and often contentious issues surrounding oil shale. We will update it regularly with new developments in Shale Country to ensure that it stays current as Americans debate the wisdom of pursuing oil shale development as part of a long-term strategy for our nation’s energy security.

RD&D operations at Shell’s Mahogany Research Project…

We believe that history can provide crucial perspective on the dilemmas that face us in the present, reducing the agitation of the moment and turning down the heat on conflicts. As the public discussion grows in agitation and heat, the prospect of oil shale development in the 21st century offers a prime opportunity to test this belief. Therefore, we begin our guide with a look at the history of oil shale, from the earliest recorded discoveries of the rock that burns to the tumultuous boom and bust cycle that rocked the Western Slope in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

We further believe that we can harness the lessons of this look backward in the service of foresight. In the second part of this guide, after surveying some of the current research and development being conducted on federal leases and private property in Shale Country, we explore ways in which contemporary stakeholders can anticipate and more effectively manage the socioeconomic and environmental challenges posed by the prospect of oil shale development.

We hope this guide will serve as a basis for a broader discussion about our nation’s energy policy and the impact it has on our lives and landscapes. Our goal has been to present the ideas and information that should be on the minds of responsible citizens as they consider the possibilities and potential pitfalls of oil shale development in the 21st century. This online guidebook is a place where we hope you will find the opportunity to consider respectfully the positions taken by people on all sides of the issue; to think with depth, breadth, and recognition of complexity about an issue of great importance to the West; and to participate in a deeper, more responsible, more productive form of decisionmaking about it.

About the Authors


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. Limerick has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between academics and the general public and to demonstrating the benefits of applying historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas and conflicts. Visit http://patty.centerwest.org to read Patty’s full bio.


Jason L. Hanson is a member of the Research Faculty at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where his work focuses on topics related to energy development, mining, and the environment. Some of his recent projects include High Energy Prices and Low-Income Americans: Reducing the Risk of Unintended Injury and What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy Efficiency and Conservation.

Ryan Rebhan Image

Ryan W. Rebhan is a research assistant at the Center of the American West, where he has spent most of his time focusing on oil shale. Ryan graduated magna cum laude in History at the University of Colorado-Boulder and he hails from Rifle, Colorado