[This op-ed was originally featured on The Hill.]
By Randy Udall

Americans love panaceas. We want thinner thighs in thirty days, a pill to cure baldness, an ultrasonic gizmo to double our mileage. Cheap gasoline isn’t guaranteed by the Constitution, but each time oil prices spike, politicians squirm as if it was.

Unfortunately, energy is an IQ test they tend to fail. For example, a recent bill introduced in the House of Representatives would require the Department of Defense to buy a $1 billion coal-to-liquids plant. If DOD is going to waterboard the climate, put Rumsfeld in charge.

Smart energy choices are the key to the future. With oil trading for $100, the biggest threat to middle-class prosperity is parked in the garage. U.S. fleet efficiency has barely budged since 1990, rising just 2 miles-per-gallon. With a typical family now spending one in every 11 dollars it earns on fuel, guzzlers are driving us to the poor house, tipping the economy towards a double-dip recession.

The same House bill hopes to jumpstart oil shale development. Oil shale is the world’s most misunderstood resource, the petroleum equivalent of fool’s gold. Although there are trillions of tons of it around the globe, oil shale currently provides only one-ten-thousandths of global energy, less than cow manure.

Oil shale has been “just around the corner” for a hundred years. A solid fuel, with just one-fourth the energy content of coal, it is much different than, but sometimes confused with, the shale gas and shale oil that are being produced in Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and elsewhere. Shale oil production in North Dakota alone is now about 25-times larger than global production of oil shale.

Half the world’s oil shale is in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, but locals are not holding our breath waiting for its arrival. Like a mirage on the highway, oil shale recedes as you approach it. When a barrel of oil was selling for $1, oil shale promoters said we’ll be ready when it hits $3. When petroleum was $10, oil shale would make sense at $30. It’s been “ten years away” for a century.

“Scientists forecast that within three years they can demonstrate a practical method of [oil shale] operation,” said one Kentucky newspaper in 1946.

Before too many years, oil shale will “undoubtedly” play an important role in meeting growing fuel demands, said a U.S. Department of Interior official in 1953.

“The oil shale reserves in Utah and Colorado are going to be a lifesaver,” said Reese Taylor, chairman of Union Oil Company in 1956.

Drill, baby, drill? We are drilling, like crazy. More than half the drilling rigs in the world are at work in North America. With oil exports peaking, we need to get real about energy conservation.

An aggressive national commitment to fuel efficiency-not the token on-again, off-again policies of the past—is not optional, it’s urgent and inevitable. With billions in taxpayer handouts and government support, oil shale might provide 100,000 barrels a day ten years from now, but that’s as much as we now consume every eight minutes. Increasing the woeful fuel efficiency of America’s automobiles by just two more miles per gallon would save twenty times as much fuel each year, saving consumers more than $50 billion at the pump.

A century of hype aside, oil shale seems destined to remain the poorest of the fossil fuels, containing far less energy per ton than hog manure, peat moss, household garbage, or Cap’n Crunch.

Randy Udall of Carbondale, Colorado is a consulting energy analyst and one of the nation’s leading activists in promoting energy sustainability. He is the former Director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) in western Colorado.