The Oil Shale Promise: A Trillion Tons Of Tater Tots

Our guest blogger is Alice Madden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and former Majority Leader of the Colorado General Assembly.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is calling for Congress to lift the moratorium on commercial oil shale development, claiming, “Our western states are sitting on a sea of oil three times as large as the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia.” That “sea of oil” is in fact a geological formation with the energy density of a baked potato.

The quixotic quest to squeeze oil out the trillions of tons of oil shale deposits in the great fossil lake of the Green River Formation began in earnest in the 1970s, as the oil fields that fueled the region’s economy for a hundred years were getting tapped out. Companies have long tried to find a profit in processing the kerogen-rich marlstone underlying 17,000 square miles of mostly federal lands into oil, and have long failed. Meanwhile, the region’s economy was being rebuilt through the preservation of its natural resources, with clean air, abundant wildlife, and endless opportunity for tourism and sport.

Like “oil sands,” “oil shale” is a colloquial term for deposits with organic matter that are millions of years away from being actual oil deposits. Thus, processing oil shale into crude oil is necessarily a highly energy-intensive, destructive, and wasteful process. As Colorado energy analysts Randy Udall and Steven Andrews have written:

Oil shale is a fossil fuel — but just barely. Searching for appropriate low-calorie analogues, we turn to foodstuffs, the realm of Weight Watchers. Oil shale is said to be “rich” when it contains 30 gallons of petroleum per ton. An equal weight of granola contains three times more energy. The “vast,” “immense,” and “unrivaled” deposits of shale buried in Utah and Colorado have the energy density of a baked potato. If someone told you there were a trillion tons of tater tots buried 1,000 feet-deep, would you rush to dig them up?

A RAND Corporation analysis prepared for the U.S. government, “Oil Shale Development in the United States,” describes the impact of building an oil-shale industry in the Green River Formation:

— “All candidate areas for oil shale development in Colorado and Utah enjoy high-quality air and accordingly are classified as Class II areas under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.”

— “An industry producing 3 million barrels of shale oil per day would annually generate over a billion tons of spent shale per year.”

— “About three barrels of water are needed per barrel of shale oil produced.”

— “Damage in the U.S. portion of the Colorado River Basin arising from elevated salinity is estimated at between $500 million and $750 million annually.”

— “Oil shale operations will result in emissions of current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–designated criteria pollutants (sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, ozone precursors, carbon monoxide) as well as small amounts of noncriteria pollutants currently on the list of air toxics covered by the Clean Air Act.” [RAND Corporation, 2005]

The energy needs for oil shale development are immense. No matter how the rock is mined, it has to be heated to at least 700 degrees Fahrenheit to boil the kerogen into an extractable fuel. A “strategic-scale” industry, producing one to three million barrels per day, would require vast energy resources supplied by multiple new power plants, most likely powered by fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, and producing millions of tons of greenhouse gases and other pollutants a year.


The Colorado River basin is already in a water crisis due to the double whammy of global warming-induced drought and a population boom. Oil shale development would suck up vast amounts of water — as it worsens global warming. Full-scale production of oil shale would consume and contaminate about 200 million gallons of water per day.

As James Hamilton, a professor of economics at University of California, San Diego, wrote in 2005, “If oil shale does turn out to be the resource of the future, then our problems are only beginning.”

But humorist John Hodgman probably said it best, when asked by Daily Show host Jon Stewart about the conservative plan to “wean us from our addiction to oil — by drilling for more oil”:

Yes, Jon, it’s typical addictive behavior. During the light of day, someone addicted to oil is clearly in favor of alternative energy sources. But at night, when the demons come, you’re out there in the garden, trying to stuff shale into your carburetor.

Watch it:

Now that the country is facing record-high gas prices resulting from eight years of failed energy policies from Washington, the hype on oil shale has returned like a bad rerun on late night TV. Not funny then; not funny now. Let’s leave the comedy to the comedians.

UPDATE: At Climate Progress Joe Romm writes:

The best analysis of the climate risks of unconventional oil, “Risks of the oil transition,” coauthored by the late Alex Farrell, has an outstanding figure that shows that from a climate perspective, shale is probably worse than liquid coal (which is pretty damn bad).