By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) at the oil shale hearing. Credit: Western Colorado Congress.
There’s something about the ever-elusive prospect of sucking petroleum out of the American West’s vast supplies of shale rock that addles people’s brains and warps their judgment.
Oil shale has been a pipe dream in the Rockies for the better part of a century. In 1916, the Pittsburgh Press confidently declared that the development of resources in Colorado and adjoining states “will mark a new era in oil production….” In 1980, the Washington Post said commercial oil shale development “seems assured.”
And today, at a field hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee energy subcommittee in Grand Junction, Colorado, Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) said that with reserves of 1.5 trillion barrels of oil lodged in shale, “the time is appropriate for the U.S. to grasp the reins of its own energy future.”
With three panels of mostly cheerleading witnesses, Tipton and his Colorado colleague, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), tried valiantly to blame the Obama administration for erecting roadblocks to the development of oil resources that could fuel our SUVs for a century or more.
But the simple truth is that “the rock that burns” has never been commercially viable, and despite ongoing research projects in western Colorado and eastern Utah, it shows no signs of becoming commercially viable any time soon.
As a senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation advised the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June, oil shale development remains “uncertain” after a hundred years of promises:
The prospects for oil shale development in the United States remain uncertain… It is our understanding that privately-funded research activities are ongoing but that no private firm is prepared to commit to commercial production.
And beyond the question of whether oil can be economically extracted from shale, there is the equally important question of whether the West could afford the cost in water. In a study last year the Government Accountability Office found that oil shale development would use between three and five barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.
That water would come from the Colorado River basin, the water source for 25 million people in the West, and a resource that is already over-allocated and looking at a reduction in flow of as much as 25 percent by mid-century due to climate change.
“A full-scale oil shale industry producing 1.55 million barrels of oil a day would require approximately 360,000 acre-feet of water a year — roughly one-and-a-half times the amount of water used by Denver per year,” concluded a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The water supply impact of this demand would not only affect agriculture and cities in the region, but could have an impact on all Colorado River Basin water users, even those as far away as southern California.”
Randy Udall, an energy analyst from western Colorado, calls oil shale “the petroleum equivalent of fool’s gold.” As today’s hearing showed, there are plenty of fools left who are still chasing that phony gold.