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Why Oil Shale is a Problem

Oil shale development is unsupportable because it will create far more problems than it will solve. Beneath the thin veneer of oil shale's energy potential lies a host of pitfalls caused by the nature of the resource. Oil shale isn't oil. In order to release its tighly held energy, a lot of other resources have to be consumed, pollution and toxic by-products produced, and a vast area of the West severely disturbed and degraded. Oil shale has never fulfilled its promise for providing a significant supply of transportation fuel and is not the key to American energy independence that its proponents suggest. Here's why oil shale doesn't make sense:

Air quality: Clear skies and clean air are part of what make the American West the American West.   People live here, are drawn to move here, and visit here because the region doesn’t have the dirty industries and dirty skies found elsewhere. Tourism is a huge component of the western economy and anything that detracts from the region's appeal will significantly diminish the thriving tourist economy.


Piceance Basin aerial view

Water: In a region defined by its arid nature, nothing is more valuable than water.  The West's legendary water fights are essentially about economics: there is no stronger predictor of a western community's economic prospects than the sufficiency and quality of its water supply.

Oil shale would be a huge new consumer of water in the West, upsetting the traditional balance of water uses and depleting large amounts from rivers and streams.  Water will be required for:

  1. Extracting shale oil
  2. Producing the energy required to power extraction
  3. Supporting the influx of people to be employed in the industry
  4. Refining and upgrading operations
  5. Dust control
  6. Other operational procedures.

Westerners are also on the impacts to water quality from industrial discharges to rivers and streams as well as the strong possibility of long-term contamination to groundwater supplies from in-situ oil shale operations.

Two WRA reports describe water impacts from oil shale and tar sands development ins Colorado and Utah.

Climate change:  Climate change is happening in the West.  There is less snow to feed the West’s water supply, higher temperature extremes, greater variation in stream flows, less healthy forests, climate zones shifting to higher elevations, increases in invasive species ...the list goes on.  In a region where vast areas get less than 10 inches of rain per year, any loss of precipitation due to climate change can turn a harsh environment into one that can no longer support what lives there.

Oil shale development would accelerate climate change. Because of the large energy imputs required to produce oil shale, greenhouse gas emission per gallon of fuel derived from oil shale would be 21-47% higher than for a comparable gallon of conventional fuel. 

Click here for addiotnal information about western climate change impacts.

Wildlife: “…where the deer and the antelope play” is not just a lyric from an iconic American song, it’s a description of many of the areas where oil shale lies buried in the West.  But the region is not only home to a huge population of deer and antelope, it is an area where one of the nation’s largest elk herd resides. Bald eagles, hawks, black bear, cutthroat trout, mountain lions, and many other creatures can also be found in abundance.  These animals are not only an intrinsic part of the region’s landscape, they help sustain the tourism and recreation economy as well.

The scale of impacts from a commercial oil shale industry would severely harm the healthy populations of these animals. Commercial oil shale operations will have to clear and level large swaths of land, fragmenting animal habitat, reducing the amount of food and water available, and making the region less habitable because of air, water, and noise pollution. 

Read more about impacts to wildlife from oil shale development.

Economies:  Oil shale is an industry that has led to booms and busts worldwide.  In the wake of every effort to get a commercial industry going there has been a trail of economic, human, and environmental damage.  Probably the worst such bust occurred in western Colorado in 1982. In an event known as Black Sunday, industry literally pulled out overnight -- leaving families, businesses, communities, and even the entire state of Colorado in an economic freefall. It took well over a decade for many people, towns and counties to recover. Some wounds from that collapse still remain.

Oil shale cannot be allowed to again cause the vast economic misery it has in the past.