Oil Shale: A Century of Failure

Wednesday, May 02, 2012, marks 30 years since Black Sunday hit the Western Slope of Colorado, putting thousands of people out of work and devastating the region’s economy. Just two days prior, the Checks and Balances Project released a report, which examines 100 years of failed investment in oil shale.  

Executive summary

Since 1917, when a government official persuaded a Nevada parole board to release a prisoner so the inmate could develop his oil shale extraction idea, experts, insiders, executives and the federal government have dumped billions into efforts to tap oil shale, leaving nothing but failed projects behind.

The oil industry has had plenty of help. The federal government crafted oil shale policies that have effectively transferred thousands of acres of public land to oil companies and have created a leasing structure that could potentially transfer billions of dollars of public wealth to the oil companies. Never before have we given this much to an industry that has yet to show commercial success.

Not one single oil shale project since the first attempts in the late 1920s has ever produced commercial fuel from shale rocks. In fact, one of the few direct results of the federal support has been premature oil shale booms that have ultimately busted.

For all the efforts the American taxpayers have made toward developing oil shale for the oil industry, every effort to sustain commercial production of the resource in the last century has failed.

And the optimism for oil shale is here again, especially amid rising oil prices.

Yet oil companies that obtained research oil shale leases atop rich deposits in northwest Colorado still say it might be another decade before commercial oil shale production ever begins, echoing those headlines from the past 100 years.

Download the full report.

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