Oil Shale Series, Part I: The Rock That Burns

Once upon a time around Rifle, Colorado, a rancher decided to use an attractive light brown shale type rock marbled in black to build his chimney for his log house. The legend goes that during his first cozy night in front of the fire, the house turned into an inferno.

His chimney had been built with oil shale.The history of oil shale in northwest Colorado has ebbed and waned many times over the years. The most recent event was the oil shale boom and bust during the 1980’s. The date May 2, 1982 is ingrained forever in Rifle’s history as the day Exxon pulled the plug on it’s oil shale plant and laid off over 2,000 workers in one whack.

Oil shale is again on the front burner as a potential source of energy for a desperate nation that for some reason hasn’t figured out alternative sources for fossil fuel. The Green River Formation, which covers northwest Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, is estimated to hold over one trillion barrels of oil.

With the price of gas over $3.00 a gallon, what are we waiting for? Let’s get that oil!

The only problem is: the technology is still in its infancy. American ingenuity has failed so far in producing oil out of oil shale for commercial purposes, although recent developments at the Shell plant near Meeker may be the most promising. Plus, the impacts of the oil shale industry on local communities, water resources, and the environment have to be weighed into the mix.

This past June, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opened nominations for sections of land to be leased for oil shale research projects in the Piceance Basin between Meeker and Rifle. Companies have 90 days to propose parcels of up to 160 acres for an oil shale trial development. Royal/Dutch Shell and EGL Resources Inc are two companies looking at producing oil out of the shale rock literally by boiling it.

Like a ghost of Christmas past, Exxon considered applying for the new oil shale leases, but back off from its application.

Next: In 1980, Exxon “White Papers” predicted 600,000 workers needed to produce three million barrels of oil a day.