Brief History of Oil Shale

Early History

The promise of oil shale has been tantalizing people around the world since long before Mike Callahan accidentally publicized its existence on the Western Slope.4 For centuries, people have heated shales to coax the oil out of the stone. Apothecaries and physicians in Austria used oil from shale for medicinal purposes as early as 1350. In England, where the word "petroleum" has been used to describe oil since the mid-fourteenth century, the first known patent for "a way to extract and make great quantities of pitch tarr and oyle out of a sort of stone" was issued in 1694. Commercial production, in which large quantities of shale were mined and heated in specialized ovens called retorts, began in France in the 1830s. Following the French lead and improving upon their methods, Scottish energy entrepreneurs initiated an oil shale industry around Edinburgh in 1850 that successfully operated into the 1960s.

The old Mormon Retort.

The old Mormon Retort near Levan, Juab County, Utah, photographed in...

In North America, Ute Indian words for "the rock that burns" indicate an early recognition of oil shale's unique properties. The first small processing facility for shale was opened in Alberta, Canada, in 1815. By the eve of the US Civil War, more than 50 companies in Canada and the United States were retorting shale to distill oil from rocks (albeit none very successfully), most of which was used to produce kerosene. Mormon settlers founded the first known oil shale operation in the Rocky Mountain West, perhaps as early as 1855, building a retort in a ravine near the small present-day town of Levan, Utah, about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City down Interstate 15. But the Drake oil strike in Pennsylvania in 1859 - and the subsequent birth of the modern American petroleum industry - quickly made oil shale an unprofitable venture in places that had access to its liquid counterpart. For a time, interest subsided.5

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