Energy: America’s Untapped Oil Reserves

Royal Dutch Shell, the international oil giant, thinks the solution to America's oil crisis may lie in the heart of Colorado. Since 1981, the company has quietly funded a multi-million dollar research project that many call a quest for energy's Holy Grail. The mission: to discover a way to safely and economically extract fuel from oil shale, a type of sedimentary rock found in Wyoming, Utah, and especially Colorado's Western Slope. The potential windfall is staggering. Studies over the years by industry and government alike estimate that there may be between 800 billion and more than one trillion barrels of oil locked up in these rocks--nearly three times the known reserves in Saudi Arabia. That would be enough oil to supply America for the next 400 years. "It's coming eventually. It's just a matter of when," say Roy McClung, mayor of Parachute, Colorado, a community in the heart of oil shale country. "Should all the stuff come into place, this area is going to--well, I don't know if anyone is ready for that kind of growth."

With oil bubbling over $140 a barrel, the political push is heating up. On Monday, President Bush announced that he is lifting an executive ban on offshore drilling. In June, he also championed oil shale, calling it "a highly promising resource," and asked Congress to lift a year-old national moratorium that critics say prohibits the industry from tapping oil-rich shale deposits.

But are McClung and Bush being overly optimistic about shale? Yes, say some oil industry executives, government officials and environmentalists. They point to a 2005 RAND Corporation study that suggests a commercially viable means of extracting oil from shale may be at least 12 years off, if ever. Shell, a leader in the research effort for the past 25 years, has not sold a single barrel of fuel from shale. In fact, no one has ever commercialized oil shale in the United States. The extraction process carries with it significant environmental risks as well-a political stumbling block in a region of the country where water is an extremely precious commodity.

For generations, oil shale has been more a source of frustration than actual energy. Early Western homesteaders unwittingly used the rocks to build their chimneys, only to find that they were fire hazards. During the 19th century, the stones were squeezed for kerosene and lamp oil. And by the mid-20th century, government and industry were eyeing shale as a source of gasoline and jet fuel. "The question has always been how to recover it and at what cost," says Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association (NOSA), an industry-funded advocacy group that was reborn this year after being defunct for nearly two decades.

With analysts predicting oil could hit $170 a barrel by the end of the year, the rush is on for shale oil again. But Colorado's been through booms before, only to be burned. After prices spiked in the late 1970s, big oil poured into Colorado's Western Slope, the world's biggest oil shale deposit. Flush with money and jobs, towns like Rifle and Grand Junction thrived. "People were living in tents, under bridges. There was nowhere to put all the workers," says Parachute's mayor, McClung.

But by the early 80s, oil prices fell and extraction technology never panned out. On Sunday, May 2, 1982, the bubble burst. Exxon announced it was closing its $5 billion Colony oil-shale operation. Overnight, Colorado's entire Western Slope economy collapsed. "Police were put on riot alert," McClung recalls. "Thousand of people arrived to work on Monday and were met with armed guards and the last pay check. Buildings partly erected sat for years until they were tore down. It was awful." To this day, many Coloradoans still blame "Black Sunday" as the trigger that put the state in a near decade-long recession.

Twenty-six years later, with gas at more than $4 a gallon, oil-shale prospectors think it can still work. Most eyes are on Royal Dutch Shell's "in situ" process. The company's idea is to heat oil shale underground to temperatures of about 700 degrees for three years or longer. In turn, the oil oozes out of the rock and can then be extracted. To avoid contaminating underground water, areas surrounding the heated rock are frozen to create "freeze walls", theoretically preventing the oil from migrating. "We have demonstrated that our technology works. We have produced oil and gas," says Terry O'Connor, vice president external and regulatory affairs for Shell Exploration and Production Company, Unconventional Oil.

In all, O'Connor says, the company has produced only 1,800 barrels, and, won't commercially produce for another 10 years at least. "Our challenge now is whether we can do it on a larger, commercial basis," adding Shell has yet to prove groundwater can be protected. "If we are not able to do that, I can assure you that we will not proceed to commercialization." When will Shell decide? Says O'Connor: "We hope to have enough knowledge by 2009 or 2010."

Still, Shell and other players, like Chevron, Exxon and a handful of oil-shale prospecting companies, want some answers now. Companies researching oil shale have been relegated to testing on privately-owned land or a few specially-leased plots on federal land. The reason? While the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the Bureau of Land Management--which manages 80 percent of the oil-shale territory--to begin paving the way for commercial production, a 2007 environmentally-concerned Congress narrowly voted to put a one-year moratorium on developing commercial regulations, a restriction that expires on October 1. "We need a little more certainty the industry will be supported," says Vawter, who argues the moratorium should not be renewed. Shell's O'Connor says without any federal direction, it could have a "chilling effect" on the company's desire to continue investments.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are taking a cautious line. They voice concern about the impact extraction would have on water quality. Some also worry that the production of oil shale could release greenhouse gases, though the oil companies say that is not a proven side effect. But even the most vocal environmental critics seem wary of being painted as anti-development in the current climate-especially since the energy industry is so vital to the local economy. "Across the board you have people who remember the Black Sunday event," says Frank Smith, the oil shale community organizer for the Western Colorado Congress. "This issue still resonates in their minds and souls."

Last month, Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter testified in Congress he wants to preserve the moratorium, a position supported by Wyoming's Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal. Soon after, and just across the state border from the Royal Dutch Shell plant, Utah's Republican governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., and the state's two Republican senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, called publicly for an end to the moratorium.

The heart of Colorado's oil shale country was once a Republican stronghold, in a loyal red state. No longer. Colorado is a key 2008 swing state, and four years ago the residents of oil shale country elected John Salazar, a Democrat, to the House. "He won because he defended the Western Slope's water," says Kenneth Bickers, professor of political science and the department chair at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In fact, in 2007, Salazar, along with his brother, Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar and Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, sponsored the efforts that led to the current oil-shale moratorium. Udall is today the Democratic candidate for an open Colorado Senate seat, in a tight race with former oil executive, Bob Schaffer. It's anybody's guess at this point whether the Bush administration's push to end the moratorium will help-or hurt-Republicans in down-ticket contests this fall.

Back in Parachute, the townspeople are mindful of history, the mayor says, adding that he is concerned about another oil shale boom and bust cycle. "Is there a split in town? Pretty badly," says McClung, who won his mayoral seat as a registered independent in 2006. "It's amazing how small issues, like the moratorium, can become such a big focal point. But it's going to be a very hot-button issue."

Join the Discussion