Oil Shale's Legacy of Failure Haunts the West

05/04/2011 11:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

For more than 100 years, oil and gas boosters have promised that pulling oil out of rock-solid kerogen formations in the West would be easy, and the region would be awash in jobs, fortunes and eternal economic prosperity if we only tapped it.

But then reality, as it always has, crushed those overly optimistic "oil shale" promises and with it, the livelihoods of thousands who banked their lives on those promises.

In the 1910s and 1920s, people were lured West by oil shale boosters' promises of jobs and easy money. But that boom busted in the mid-1920s when oil reserves were found in Oklahoma, Texas and California -- shattering the livelihoods of thousands of people in Wyoming and Colorado's Western slope.

Then came the oil embargoes and fuel crises of the 1970s. The hydrocarbons locked up in shale rocks in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, known as kerogen, was again touted as the answer to America's energy problem.

Yet Exxon pulled the plug on its Colony oil shale project in May 1982, and more than 2,000 local workers lost their jobs immediately. After Exxon left, so did nearly every other company in the area, an economic catastrophe for several small towns in western Colorado.

Twenty-eight years later, not a single barrel of oil from shale has made its way into the nation's commercial oil supply. It's not for a lack of trying.

Shell has said it may be another 10 to 15 years before any oil is pulled out of the rocks on a commercial level. It and other multinational oil and gas companies are holding out hope, and have leases to drill on public lands in the region.

Some members of Congress are also holding out hope, sponsoring legislation that is essentially a multi-billion dollar giveaway for the oil and gas companies.

In the meantime, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar continues to press industry to answer questions about how much water oil shale development requires -- and where it will come from in the parched, over-allocated West.

Last month, Salazar announced that the agency would "take a fresh look at commercial oil shale rules and plans issued under the previous administration and, if necessary, update them based on the latest research and technologies, to account for expected water demands in the arid West and to ensure they provide a fair return to taxpayer[s]."

As a rancher I too, am concerned about what we are getting into with oil shale and the amount of water that commercial development might require. Ensuring oil shale doesn't steal or pollute my water or that of my neighbors requires moving carefully, and I support Secretary Salazar's caution. Understanding the impacts before proceeding with oil shale commercial development is just common sense.

As the Associate State Director for BLM in Wyoming for many years and prior to that, an Interior official in Washington, DC with oversight of energy, water and public lands policy, my understanding of oil shale has always been that it is an energy source of the future ... but always in the future. The impacts associated with oil shale development were simply too broad and deep to ever believe that oil shale would be produced in commercial quantities.

Oil shale is an empty promise; our decision-makers in Washington should instead be focused on sources that offer reliable energy and jobs, while protecting our water supply.

Bill Eikenberry is a third-generation Wyoming rancher and former associate state director of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, where he was responsible for 1,000 employees and managed 18 million acres of public land.


Oil Shale