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, tracking new developments in Shale Country on our blog to ensure that it remains a reliable source of information as Americans debate the wisdom of pursuing oil shale development as part of a long-term strategy for our nation’s energy security.

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 decision making 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.

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, land use planning, the environment, and education.

Ryan Rebhan is a research assistant at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder. He hails from Rifle, Colorado.

Acknowledgments

Over two crisp autumn days in October 2007, the Center of the American West conducted a workshop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for a team of engineers and scientists from Chevron, Los Alamos National Lab, and the University of Utah on the social, economic, and environmental issues surrounding the possibility of oil shale development. The workshop was initiated at the request of Robert Lestz, the Oil Shale Technology Manager at Chevron. Chevron’s lease on Hunter Ridge is one of several issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin a new round of oil shale research and development. As his team began work on designing the new extraction process, Mr. Lestz wanted them to be able to anticipate and avoid as many of the potential pitfalls as possible. The result of this workshop was a lively and constructive dialogue that gave rise to a larger project: Creating an evenhanded, informative, and accessible resource for anyone who wants to learn more about oil shale.

Although this project grew out of the workshop funded by Chevron in 2007, the report itself was produced independently and was not funded by any outside source. The Center of the American West is responsible for all editorial content. Along the way, we have drawn on the generosity, guidance, advice, and outstanding contributions of a wide range of experts and stakeholders, including people employed in the energy industry; representatives of environmental organizations; government officials at the local, state, and federal level; geologists, biologists, climatologists, hydrologists, chemists, and a host of other scientists; local residents; historians and observers of the Western Slope; and our colleagues at the Center of the American West. Without them, this online guidebook could not have been completed. We would like to thank:

  • Robert Lestz and Chevron for sponsoring the original workshop, and for his thoughtful and inspiring approach to oil shale development;
  • Sean Norris of Chevron for patiently sharing his views and those of Chevron on oil shale development;
  • Jim Koffer of Chevron for taking Center of the American West staff out to the Chevron lease site and bringing us oil shale samples;
  • Tracy Boyd and Gale Norton of Shell for discussing Shell’s perspective on oil shale with us and sharing their feedback about the report;
  • Kurt Schultz, Colorado Outfitters Association, for participating in the workshop;
  • Tim Sullivan, Director of Conservation Initiatives at the Nature Conservancy in Colorado, for participating in the workshop;
  • Karin Sheldon and David Ableson of Western Resource Advocates for their generous assistance and sharing their feedback about the report;
  • Pam Eaton of the Wilderness Society for sharing her thoughts on the subject;
  • Keith Lambert, Mayor of Rifle, for participating in the workshop;
  • Jesse Smith, Assistant County Manager of Garfield County, for participating in the workshop;
  • Reeves Brown, Executive Director of Club 20, for participating in the workshop;
  • Aron Diaz, Executive Director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, for participating in the workshop;
  • Kelly Uhing, Colorado State Weed Coordinator, for participating in the workshop;
  • Dan Bean, Director of Biological Pest Control and Manager of the Palisade Insectary, for participating in the workshop;
  • Robert Randall, then with Western Resource Advocates and now Federal Lands Coordinator at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, for sharing his knowledge of federal mineral leasing law and recent energy legislation;
  • Paul Dagget, Bureau of Land Management White River Field Office, for participating in the workshop;
  • Houston Kempton for conducting a workshop session and fielding numerous questions on water quality issues as well as contributing to that section of the report;
  • Jane and Carl Bock of the University of Colorado for conducting a workshop session on ecology and contributing to that section of the report;
  • Michael Hannigan of the University of Colorado for conducting a workshop session on air quality issues and reviewing that section of the report;
  • Cathy Wilson, Deputy Division Leader for Earth and Environmental Sciences at Los Alamos National Labs, for sharing her views on water availability in the Colorado River basin;
  • Jeremy Boak, Director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, for sharing his views on the future of oil shale development;
  • Chuck Kutscher, Principal Engineer/Group Manager of Thermal Systems at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for reviewing parts of the report and sharing his feedback;
  • Carl Koval, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the Renewable Energy Initiative at the University of Colorado-Boulder, for reviewing several drafts of this report and providing valuable feedback at each stage;
  • Bob Sievers, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the Environmental Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, for providing information about research he did during the second oil shale boom and for reviewing an early draft of this report;
  • Roger Pielke Jr., Professor of Environmental Studies and Fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, for reviewing an early draft of this report;
  • Duane Smith, Professor of History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, for sharing his views and on the history of the Western Slope at the workshop;
  • Andrew Gulliford, Professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, for his views and guidance on several aspects of the past and present of oil shale development;
  • Joe Brown of Starz Down to Earth Films for sharing his film, National Sacrifice Zone, and his thoughts;
  • Ed Quillen, columnist and trenchant observer of all things Western, for helping trace the origins of the phrase “national sacrifice zone”;
  • Tim Brown for helping line up workshop speakers, conducting a workshop session on water, contributing to that section of the report, and providing general guidance throughout the project as a member of the Center of the American West research faculty;
  • Kurt Gutjahr of the Center of the American West for coordinating the myriad logistics of organizing the workshop and for shepherding this project to completion;
  • Elaine Tucci, former Executive Director of the Center of the American West and now at the CU Energy Initiative, for her leadership in arranging the workshop, conducting a session on the socioeconomic impacts of energy development, and contributing to that section of the report;
  • Amber Blais Wilson of the Center of the American West for preparing PowerPoint presentations for the workshop and for her work in creating this website;
  • Honey Lindburg, Shawna Riley, and Jessica Hsu of the Center of the American West for preparing the workshop programs and for their work in creating this website;
  • Roni Ires of the Center of the American West for her help in keeping the numbers straight throughout this project;
  • Amanda Dixon and Dylan Eiler of the Center of the American West for reading several drafts of this manuscript and making a number of helpful suggestions.

Photo Credits

Why Oil Shale?

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: The Roan Plateau and Anvil Points stands prominently outside of Rifle, Colorado.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (2007)
  • Why You Should Know About Oil Shale
    Caption: The Piceance Creek flows through ranchlands, past oil and gas operations, and over the richest oil shale deposits in the world on its way to join the Colorado River.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (2007)
    Caption: RD&D operations at Shell’s Mahogany Research Project in the Piceance Basin, Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)

Welcome to Shale Country

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: A closeup of a piece of oil shale found in Colorado. The striations show sedimentary layers; the darker the color of a layer, the higher its oil shale content.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • What Is Oil Shale?
    Caption: Oil shale: The rock that burns.
    Credit: US Department of Energy
  • How Many Rocks Fit in a Barrel?
    Caption: The richest oil shale beds in the world are found in the basins of the Green River Formation along the T-shaped border between Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
    Full size image.
  • The Answer to the Energy Crisis?
    Caption: A map of Shale Country showing the location of the major oil shale deposits.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
    Full size image.
  • Early History
    Caption: The old Mormon Retort near Levan, Juab County, Utah, photographed in 1916. Built by Mormon pioneers roughly 60 years earlier, it was the first known oil shale operation in the Rocky Mountain West, extracting as much as a barrel of oil a day from the surrounding rocks for use in dressing leather harnesses, lubricating wagon wheel axels, and lighting lamps.
    Credit: US Geological Survey

Encouraging the First Boom

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: Scenes like this one on the west side of Parachute Creek in Colorado, photographed in 1916, drew thousands of hopeful prospectors to the area to work the rich oil shale deposits exposed on this and similar cliff faces.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • The First Boom
    Caption: The federal government helped stir up interest in oil shale by sending the US Geological Survey to survey the deposits. Encouraging reports from surveyors such as these men, shown sampling an outcropping of shale in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, in 1914, fed optimistic predictions about oil shale development and helped trigger a boom.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • Regulating the Boom
    Caption: The first oil shale retort in Colorado, shown here in a photograph printed in National Geographic in 1918, was built by the Oil Shale Mining Company on Dry Fork west of De Beque, Garfield Country, Colorado. Designed from illustrations found in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the Scottish oil shale industry, the retort heated crushed shale to extract oil.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • The Mineral Leasing Act
    Caption: Looking north down Piceance Creek in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, over land that holds some of the richest oil shale deposits in the world.
    Credit: US Geological Survey (1931)
  • The First Bust
    Caption: When the first oil shale boom went bust in the 1920s, companies abandoned Shale Country as quickly as they had appeared, leaving the ruins of retorts such as this one on Willow Creek southwest of Vernal, Utah, as monuments to their failed efforts.
    Credit: National Energy Technology Laboratory

Waiting For the Next Boom

  • Section Header
    Caption: An aerial view of the Anvil Points oil shale research mine near Rifle, Colorado, operated by the US Bureau of Mines from 1947 to 1956.
    Credit: US Bureau of Mines (reprinted in Russell, 104)
  • Shale Country Real Estate
    Caption: Scenes like this one on the west side of Parachute Creek in Colorado, photographed in 1916, drew thousands of hopeful prospectors to the area to work the rich oil shale deposits exposed on this and similar cliff faces. While these prospectors focused on cliffs and outcroppings, the bottomlands along the creek attracted homesteaders, a presence attested to by the ranch in the foreground. Homesteaders who claimed their land before 1916 often found themselves owners of the mineral rights to even richer oil shale deposits deep under their property.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • Private Lands in Shale Country
    Caption: A map showing the mix of public and private land in Shale Country. Public land is color coded according to which federal agency manages it; private land is white.
    Credit: Argonne National Laboratory
    Full size image.

 

Engineering a Boom

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: Retorts tower above tract C-b in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, in November 1979.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • Waiting for the Next Boom
    Caption: An aerial view of the Anvil Points oil shale research mine near Rifle, Colorado, operated by the US Bureau of Mines from 1947 to 1956.
    Credit: US Bureau of Mines (reprinted in Russell, 104)
  • Opportunity Arrives
    Caption: Location of the 1974 oil shale leases.
    Credit: US Bureau of Mines (reprinted in Russell, 4)
    Full size image.
  • Caption: An aerial view tract C-a in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, in June 1980. Standard Oil Company of Indiana and Gulf Oil Corporation offered more than $210 million – the highest per acre price ever paid for an energy lease up to that point – for the right to develop the oil shale lease.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • A False Start
    Caption: The environmental laws of the 1960s and ’70s emphasized the protection of Shale Country’s fragile ecosystems.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson
  • How to Make a Mining Boom
    Caption: President Jimmy Carter explained his energy strategy to the public during a series of televised fireside chats such as this one on February 2, 1977.
    Credit: National Archives, Jimmy Carter Library
  • The Second Boom Arrives
    Caption: Towering retorts cast a shadow across tract C-b in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, in November 1979. A consortium of companies including Atlantic Richfield (Arco), Ashland Oil, Shell Oil, and TOSCO paid $117.8 million to lease the site for oil shale development.
    Credit: US Geological Survey
  • The Second Bust
    Caption: An aerial view of the new town of Battlement Mesa under construction in Garfield County, Colorado, in August 1981. The town’s projected population of 25,000 was intended to help mitigate the boom’s impact by accommodating a portion of the 22,000 workers (and their families) that Exxon planned to employ at the Colony Project. After Exxon pulled out, the company recast the town as a retirement community, and today it is home to about 5000 residents of all ages.
    Credit: US Geological Survey

Planning for the Next Boom

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: One of Shell’s test facilities in the Piceance Basin, Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)
  • Why the Time Might Be Right
    Caption: Much of the oil that Americans rely on arrives on tanker ships like this one. Advocates of developing US oil shale believe that this rich domestic resource will enhance our national energy security and curtail the transfer of wealth out of the United States by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
    Credit: Photo courtesy of Stock.XCHNG, by Sam LeVan
  • Domestic Benefits
    Caption: With the exception of the spike in 2008, oil prices have risen steadily throughout the decade, a trend that many energy industry analysts expect to continue in the long term. This relatively stable price trajectory provides steady revenue streams and an economic incentive for energy companies to invest in new resources like oil shale without fearing sudden market fluctuations that might kill new development. Data Source: US Energy Information Administration.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson
    Full size image.
  • RD&D Leases
    Caption: Location of the six RD&D tracts and associated preference right lease areas.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
    Full size image.
  • Commercial Leasing
    Caption: The BLM has identified the most geologically prospective lands – those with the richest oil shale deposits – in Shale Country.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
  • The Technology: Two Methods of Extraction Caption: RD&D operations at Shell’s Mahogany Research Project in the Piceance Basin, Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)
    Caption: Graphic representations of Shell’s In situ Conversion Process and freeze wall plans. Electric heaters gradually heat the shale underground until the oil is freed from the rocks and can be pumped to the surface. Around the extraction zone, the underground freeze wall is designed to protect groundwater against contamination.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)

Managing & Mitigating the Next Boom

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: A new building goes up on the outskirts of Rifle, Colorado
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (October 2007)
  • Environmental Impacts
    Caption: Lands available for application for leasing under the BLM’s Proposed Plan Amendment (Alternative B) for commercial oil shale development within the most geologically prospective areas in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
    Full size image_CO.
    Full size image_UT.
    Full size image_WY.
  • People
    Caption: Shell’s Mahogany Research Project administration center in Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)
  • Boomtown Balancing Acts
    Caption: A new neighborhood under construction in Rifle, Colorado. Housing shortages have been one of the biggest challenges faced by Western Slope communities during the recent oil and gas boom. Some studies have predicted that Rifle will more than double in population to 20,000 residents within 10 years.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson
  • The Darkside of the Boom
    Caption: A gas drilling rig located along Piceance Creek in Colorado. The current oil and gas boom in and around the Piceance Basin has had a powerful impact on nearby communities in Garfield, Mesa, and Rio Blanco Counties.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson
  • How to Plan for a “Maybe Boom”
    Caption: A new building goes up on the outskirts of Rifle, Colorado. The influx of people arriving to work on the area’s oil and gas operations has left housing in short supply in towns like Rifle. An oil shale boom overlapping with the current oil and gas boom could exacerbate the shortage.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (October 2007)
  • Land & Ecology
    Caption: One of Shell’s test facilities in the Piceance Basin, Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
    Credit: Shell Oil USA (used by permission)
  • Coming into Crowded Country
    Caption: The Dudley Bluffs twinpod is one of the plants threatened by oil shale development. A small perennial named for its heart-shaped fruits, it grows in only a dozen places in the world, and all of them sit above oil shale deposits in Rio Blanco County.
    Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
    Caption: The sage and juniper that dot the landscape at the Chevron RD&D lease site are typical of the Piceance Basin ecosystem.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (October 2007)
    Caption: A dirt road cuts through the sagebrush landscape near the Chevron RD&D lease site, providing access to oil and gas operations in the area. Roads can have a major impact on ecosystems, providing an entry point for invasive species and disrupting wildlife movements.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (October 2007)
  • Balancing Bulls with Booms
    Caption A bull elk is silhouetted against the Colorado sky. The opportunity to take such pictures has contributed to a valuable tourism industry on the Western Slope. Many people feel that the region’s existing economic drivers, such as tourism, are threatened by the landscape-sized signature of energy development.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (July 2007)
  • Water
    Caption: The Colorado River flows out of the Rocky Mountain high country and along the southern edge of Shale Country. It is not clear how much water new oil shale production technologies will require, but in the thirsty Colorado River Basin, water is a potential dealbreaker.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (September 2008)
  • A Potential Dealbreaker
    Caption: The Colorado River system reaches through most of the southwestern United States.
    Credit: Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program
    Full size image.
  • How Much is Left?
    Caption: Fish Creek flows into the Yampa River on the south side of the town of Steamboat, Colorado. Shell has filed for substantial water rights on the Yampa in anticipation that the water may be needed for future oil shale production.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (September 2006)
  • Air
    Caption: A map showing the proximity of the richest oil shale lands and the RD&D lease sites to national parks, national forests, and national monuments in and around Shale Country.
    Credit: US Bureau of Land Management
    Full size image.
  • Using Energy to Make Energy
    Caption: A train carrying coal chugs alongside the Colorado River east of Kremmling, Colorado. The prospect of building coal-fired power plants to provide energy for in situ oil shale operations raises questions about air quality in Shale Country.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (September 2008).

Sustaining a Better Future in Shale Country

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: Ranchlands in the Piceance Creek Valley of Colorado.
    Credit: Jason L. Hanson (October 2007)

About

  • Section Header photo
    Caption: Aerial view of Shale Country, Garfield County, Colorado. August 27, 1981. Initial dirt work at Colony’s plant site mine is visible on the left.
    Credit: US Geological Survey

Learn More: Recommended Readings & Links

We would like to acknowledge the valuable work on oil shale done by others and invite you to read more about the subject after you have finished our report. On both counts, the list of recommended readings below offer a good place to start. (For a more detailed listing of sources we consulted during this project, please see the Endnotes.)