Time Machine Tuesday: Oil Shale

In 1921 the Colorado Geological Survey published a bulletin entitled Oil Shales of ColoradoAccording to the report, Pennsylvania and nearby states dominated the petroleum extraction industry in the mid-nineteenth century, but as drilling declined at the same time that demand increased, Colorado and other western and mid-western states looked to Scotland and France, who had all the while been experimenting with oil shale.

What is oil shale?  Oil shale is oil that is produced by distillation of sedimentary rock.  For an easy-to-understand explanation, see the Colorado Geological Survey’s 2004 RockTalk publication about “black gold.”

Oil shale production, Colorado, 1918. Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Looking back to 1921, however, it was clear that with the increase in automobile production and sales, more oil would be needed.  The recent war had also caused increased demand.  “When the ever-increasing demand is taken into consideration,” writes report author R.D. George, “it is evident that the time is not far distant when a part of the supply will again come from the distillation of shales.  When that time comes Colorado will unquestionably take a prominent place.”

Did George accurately predict the future of oil shale?  In some ways, yes — oil shale continues to be experimented with in Colorado.  However, as stated in the above-referenced RockTalk article, although oil shale has enormous potential, “the United States is not using this apparently vast resource to any significant extent, and it may not be able to do so in the near future.”  Why?  Processing is very expensive, says the article, and not always environmentally friendly:  “…at present, the economical way to mine it appears to be surface- or strip-mining with its associated land disturbance.  Most of the richest oil shale is located in areas of the western United States that are chronically short of water, making revegetation after strip-mining difficult.”  The water shortage is another problem, as oil shale production requires significant amounts of water.  Economics are also a factor, as described in the article.

Despite its challenges, oil shale development has a significant role in the history of Colorado resource extraction.  Check out the 1921 publication and others from our library to learn more about the history of oil shale in Colorado.