Oil shale has been in the news a lot lately, although it is unclear as to exactly why. For, at least with current technology, the longstanding Colorado adage holds true: Oil shale is the fuel of the future and always will be.
With current techniques, producing fuel from so-called shale oil is prohibitively expensive. And there is no telling when or if the requisite technological breakthrough might occur.
The "oil" in oil shale is not akin to the methane gas contained in coal locally. Coal-bed methane is found in the coal, but can be relatively easily separated from the coal surrounding it. And the process involves drilling, not tremendously different from the production of conventional natural gas.
Moreover, oil shale does not contain oil at all, at least not in the normal sense. Oil shale is rock that includes a substance called kerogen. It can be burned directly, almost like coal, or the kerogen can be converted into a synthetic crude oil.
But burning oil shale, which is done in some parts of the world, presents at least as many problems as burning coal. Mining it is messy, burning it is dirty and disposing of the waste is a problem in itself. It is an environmental headache from start to finish.
Turning it into crude oil is not much better. To render the kerogen into something that can be handled like crude oil, the rock has to be heated. In most scenarios, that means it first must be mined and then cooked before anything like conventional refining can begin. Or, in one process under development, sheets of ice would be used to surround an oil shale deposit and isolate groundwater while electric heaters would cook the rock in place.
In every case the process uses significant quantities of energy. (In that last scenario, both to make the ice and heat the rock.) That drives up the cost, both in dollar terms and as environmental impacts. If turning oil shale into fuel to power vehicles is accomplished with electricity produced by coal-fired power plants, is that really a net gain? Or is that better seen as a double hit to the environment?
Every known method for processing oil shale also uses lots of water. And, at least in this country, the places that have oil shale tend not to have much water. That would include Western Colorado, where it is really not that much of a stretch to say that before long, a barrel of water could be worth more than a barrel of oil. Water issues alone are enough to preclude oil-shale development with current technology.
The United States needs to keep looking at every available source of energy, including oil shale. Estimates vary, but there could be as much as the equivalent of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in America's oil-shale deposits. That could go a long way toward making this country energy independent, if an acceptable way to use it is developed.
But it also is true that, as a nation and as a planet, we need to be thinking beyond fossil fuels. And if we apply ourselves with that focus, the effort and the resources it deserves, it is entirely possible we will move beyond oil shale before we ever get to it.