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By Christopher J. Petherick

There is an estimated 2 trillion barrels of oil buried beneath parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Geologists, petroleum companies and the federal government have known about these massive deposits for nearly a century. The trouble has always been: how do you get at it?

It is believed that the shale deposits in the Green River region of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are holding the equivalent of approximately 1.5 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil. Called “oil shale” or “shale oil,” according to scientists and petroleum companies, much of it cannot be recovered with current technology due to the costly processing involved and the depth of the deposits buried beneath the Rocky Mountains.

Still, if only half can be extracted, scientists believe the amount is nearly triple the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

There has been quite a bit of hype surrounding the shale oil deposits of late. The problem with this, however, is that the type of oil in the western United States is contained in fine-grained sedimentary rocks—hence the name “shale oil.”


Technically, it is not really oil at this stage, say geologists. It’s kerogen—sort of an oil-like substance that, when heated in an expensive, laborious process, can be turned into a lower-grade oil, which can then be used in cars.

Walter Youngquist, a geologist from Eugene, Ore., published an article on the web site of the World Energy Council which delves into this subject. Youngquist put it this way:

The term “oil shale” is a misnomer. It does not contain oil nor is it commonly shale. The organic material is chiefly kerogen, and the “shale” is usually a relatively hard rock, called marl. Properly processed, kerogen can be converted into a substance somewhat similar to petroleum. However, it has not gone through the “oil window” of heat (nature’s way of producing oil) and therefore, to be changed into an oil-like substance, it must be heated to a high temperature. By this process the organic material is converted into a liquid, which must be further processed to produce an oil which is said to be better than the lowest grade of oil produced from conventional oil deposits, but of lower quality than the upper grades of conventional oil.

There are currently two main processes for refining shale oil, both of which are capital and labor intensive. In one method, the shale is broken down on-site and heated. The gases and liquids can then be extracted. In the second, the shale oil is removed and transported to facilities where it is then heated and refined.


It is no secret that there is a potential oil bonanza in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The Association of Petroleum Geologists (APG) reports that in the 1900s, oil companies began looking into the deposits in this part of the United States.

In fact, in the 1920s, thousands of so-called “oil placer claims” were filed on public lands following a rules change by the federal government that allowed private companies to lease government-managed land and extract the natural resources there.

Large deposits of shale oil are also not unique to the United States. In fact, there are huge reserves of the substance all around the world, from China to Australia to Scotland to South Africa. But, once again, the problem rests with the expense of getting to it and processing it. In the mid-to-late 19th century, France and Scotland extracted large deposits and processed it for their own purposes.

For the most part, the shale oil deposits in the United States were ignored in the United States up until the oil crisis of the late 1970s forced petroleum companies to begin thinking about alternative sources of oil. However, since then, the price of gas has been rock bottom so oil companies—motivated by huge profits and not the need to ensure that the United States is energy self-sufficient—have been avoiding spending the money to research new techniques for refining shale oil.

Today, as oil prices creep up again, petroleum companies are again looking at shale oil despite its high price tag, evidenced by the fact that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has requests from multinational oil conglomerates to extract shale oil in the Green River region.

But even with modern technology, the difficulties associated with extracting and processing shale oil have forced even some of the largest oil companies to drop out of the game.

An April 11 article in Colorado’s daily newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, noted that the BLM began accepting proposals by companies to develop the shale oil in the Western part of the United States in the summer of 2005.

But BLM officials, citing various reasons, have already rejected bids put forth by 14 out of 18 companies, including an offer by Exxon Mobil.

The BLM said it dumped Exxon Mobil because it did not appear to be dedicating enough resources to shale oil research. But Exxon is reportedly notorious in that part of the country. According to The Rocky Mountain News, many Coloradans still remember “Black Sunday,” or May 2, 1982, when Exxon execs announced the closure of a shale oil processing facility that had been running for decades in western Colorado. The closure put 2,200 people out of work in that part of the state, resulting in a rash of bankruptcies and foreclosures, which hurt the locals for many years after.

Shell has reportedly been studying ways to extract oil shale on land in Colorado since the 1990s. The company said it hopes to have a full-blown operation by 2010.

Two others reportedly still in the running include Chevron and the Texas-based EGL Resources. Industry experts are optimistic that, with help from the government, new techniques can be developed to economically extract oil from the shale deposits and process it with relative ease.

(Issue #20, May 15, 2006)

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Updated May 8, 2006