What dreams shale come


Yesterday I read, “What every westerner should know about oil shale,” a report published last week by the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West. It left my ears ringing with a sort of dull reverberation that, while it lasted, actually seemed to be getting louder. I think that ringing sound had something to do with the time line below, which I've culled from the report. 

The report offers all sorts of handy information on, for example, the social impacts of boom and bust cycles, shale extraction laws and the latest extraction technologies (Exxon's sounds like the Frankenstein monster of fracking) but in large part, it's a history of shales's many false promises and failures. So it's surprising that it left me with the feeling that commercial shale production isn't so much futile, as fated. Despite all of the hurdles, shale companies have been testing the U.S. oil market for the last century and a half. They've been rebuffed every time. But over the decades we've only become more dependent on fossil fuels, and sooner or later we'll run out of conventional resources. A habit is a hard thing to break. It seems unlikely that we'll skate right over into an alternative energy economy without first tapping a petroleum reserve as huge as the Green River Formation. As the report puts it, “…oil shale may well be the end game of the Fossil Fuel Age. But it is a very big play.”  

1694: In England, one hopeful soul files for a patent on, “a way to extract and make great quantities of pitch tarr and oyle out of a sort of stone.”

1855: Mormons settlers in Levan, Utah, begin to process oil shale. Four years later, liquid oil is discovered in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvanian oil is cheaper to produce. The oil shale market falters. A precedent is set.

1917: As part of a larger attempt to stimulate domestic oil production for the war effort, then Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane declares, “It is now possible to work selected deposits of shale in [economic] competition with the oil from oil wells, and these oil shale reserves can be considered of immediate importance to the oil industry and to the defense of the nation.”

Lane is mistaken, but a wave of speculation ensues. Over 200 oil shale companies set up shop, only to be wiped off the map in the late 1920s by the Great Depression and new supplies of cheap, liquid crude. Yet again, the market makes a pipe dream of oil shale.

 1974: In an attempt to capture that fantastic beast, “energy independence,” the Nixon administration auctions a number of oil shale parcels at record profits. A combination of factors – including market forces – stymies production.

 1977: President Carter sets off after the same mythical creature that Richard Nixon (and Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman) pursued before him, and like his predecessors, attempts to use oil shale as one of his weapons. Carter’s boosterism sets off a wave of shale development on Colorado’s western slope. In 1980, Exxon announces plans to build the Colony Oil Shale project.

 1982: Oil prices drop. Exxon catastrophically closes the Colony plant and nearly 24,000 people leave Colorado’s Garfield and Mesa counties.

2005: With oil prices fluctuating, the second Bush administration instigates a new push for oil shale research and development.