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Earth Talk: Sizing up oil shale as a possible resource

Energy source or more trouble for the environment?

Oil shale (right) and raw extract oil (left). Geologists think the world has more oil shale than existing reserves of oil.

Noah Rabinowitz/The Denver Post/Newscom

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Q: Are the United States’ vast oil shale resources a potential source of energy?
– Larry LeDoux, Honolulu

A: Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains significant amounts of kerogen, a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds that can be converted into synthetic liquid fuel similar to oil, or into shale gas similar to petroleum-derived natural gas. Geologists believe there is more oil shale in the world – 3 trillion barrels worth of fuel – than there is oil in existing reserves globally.

Oil shale has been mined extensively in Brazil, China, Estonia, Germany, Israel, and Russia, but up to two-thirds of the world’s supply lies in the Green River Basin of the western United States, including parts of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.

To date, these American oil shale resources remain virtually untapped, but an 11th-hour executive order by the Bush administration in 2008 put 2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land across the three states up for lease to oil shale extractors.

Other nations with oil shale reserves have been mining them for decades for power generation and other uses, but American enthusiasm has run hot and cold, depending on oil prices. The US was bullish on oil shale during the 1970s oil shocks, but when gas prices fell again, so did the enthusiasm.


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