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Dirty Fuels: Oil Shale

"Squeezing oil from shale mountains is not an option that would allow our planet and its inhabitants to survive."
-James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute

Get the Factsheet -- Oil Shale: the Looming Threat to America's West

Nowhere is it more clear than in their oil shale experiments that the oil industry will stoop to any measures to retain their control over the energy sector. Read on to find out more about this outrageously expensive and nearly impossible to mine source of oil.

What is Oil Shale?
Oil shale is any sedimentary rock that can form petroleum-like substances after a chemical heating process.[i] Oil shale can be mined and processed to generate oil similar to that from conventional oil wells - but it's a little more complicated than just drilling down and pumping it out. This is because the oil substances in shale are solid, meaning the rock must first be mined and then heated to such a high temperature that the oil melts in a process called retorting. The resulting liquid must then be separated and collected.[ii]

Where is Oil Shale Found?
Geological surveys report that more than 70 percent of American oil shale is in federal land in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.[iii] Much of this is located in the Green River Formation. Here's a map of the Green River Formation oil shale and its main basins in the Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

What's Wrong with Oil Shale?
Mining and processing of oil shale involve a variety of environmental impacts, including global warming pollution, disturbance of mined land, shale disposal, use of water resources, and impacts on air and water quality. The United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that the development of a commercial oil shale industry in the United States would also have significant social and economic impacts on local communities.[iv]

Extracting oil from oil shale is more complex and expensive than conventional oil recovery. In fact, no company has yet in the forty years they have been researching oil shale, found a way to make it profitable. It simply costs too much to mine and extract. As a result, shale oil is only commercially viable when world oil prices are high. And we as consumers will not just pay the cost of producing one barrel. We will pay transport costs, royalties and other fees. Gasoline prices are already high. If we turn to a fuel that is even more expensive than conventional oil, we will be locking ourselves into higher gasoline prices at the pump.

Water Usage and Quality
Each barrel of shale oil produced by the conventional mining m#240od consumes between 2.1 and 5.2 barrels of water, a commodity already scarce in the region. Runoff from mine tailings - 150,000 tons a day; 55 million tons a year - would threaten water supplies used by cities, farms, and wildlife.[vi]In anticipation of the amount of water, the oil company would need if it were begin commercially producing shale oil, the oil companies experimenting with shale oil have already bought most of the water rights in the Green River Valley[D1] . Currently they are not producing at scale and so are not using the water, leaving it available for the towns and communities nearby. But imagine what would happen to those towns' water supply, if the shale oil industry took off.

Waste Storage
Producing oil from oil shale creates harmful waste that would have to be stored - either on-site or off-site. Depending on the waste site locations, the storage could pose water quality problems.

Global Warming Emissions
If the U.S. were to mine and process oil shale to the tune of three million barrels/day each year[D2] , it would produce 350 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 5% of current annual U.S. global warming pollution.[vii]

Energy Intensity
A 2005 study by the RAND Corporation estimates it would require a 1200-megawatt power plant just to unlock just 100,000 barrels of shale oil a day (less than 1 percent of our total oil demand). Large enough to serve half a million people, the power plant alone would burn 5 million tons of coal each year and release 10 million tons of global warming pollution.[viii]

Wildlife Disruption
Impacts on wildlife from oil shale projects could occur in a number of ways, including habitat loss, alteration, or fragmentation; disturbance and displacement; mortality; and increase in human access. These impacts can even result in chronic or acute toxicity from hydrocarbons, herbicides, or other contaminants.[ix] What's more, the sites proposed for oil shale development in Colorado are home to several animals that are currently on the Endangered Species List.


[i] "Spent Oil Shale," Environmental Protection Agency
[ii] "Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact State Information Center," Bureau of Land Management
[iii] "Oil Shale and Tar Sands," Bureau of Land Management
[iv] "Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact State Information Center," Bureau of Land Management
[v] "Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact State Information Center," Bureau of Land Management
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] US Government Emissions Inventory 2005 (2007), US Environmental Protection Agency via "Unconventional Oil: Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel?" - World Wildlife Fund and The Co-Operative Financial Services, p. 38. 2008.
[viii] Controversial Oil Substitutes Sharply Increase Emissions, Devour Landscapes, Natural Resources Defense Council, June 2007. Via "Unconventional Oil: Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel?" - World Wildlife Fund and The Co-Operative Financial Services, p. 38. 2008.
[ix] "Oil Shale and Tar Sands Draft Programmatic Environment Impact Statement," Bureau of Land Management. December 2007. Chapter 4, p. 66

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