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Oil Shale Moves Forward, Doubts Remain

October 26, 2010

DENVER - Oil and gas companies are renewing their exploration of oil shale as a potential fuel source, despite spending billions of dollars in the past and not producing any commercial fuel. This month, the U.S. Interior Department announced that testing will begin at three sites, two in Colorado and one in Utah.

Bill Midcap, director of renewable energy at Rocky Mountain Farmers' Union, says that the industry estimate of taking three gallons of water to produce one gallon of oil from shale isn't realistic in the arid Rockies.

"We're really concerned over how it's going to impact the water resource, when the Colorado River and other water resources in the state are already highly sought after and pretty much allocated as what Mother Nature gives us."

Midcap praises Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's limited approach to exploration. Companies can only explore on 160-acre sites, and must meet strict planning and reporting standards. A representative for Exxon-Mobil, which will spearhead the Colorado exploration, has said that a "careful, phased approach" makes the most sense.

Despite the industry assurances, Midcap and others worry that the risks of oil shale will outweigh the benefits.

Ken Brenner is a third-generation rancher in the Yampa Valley in Routt County, and he has doubts.

"We don't really know the impacts. There isn't currently a viable process for turning oil shale into oil so that we can assess that technology and the impacts that it will have here in Western Colorado."

The idea that oil can be produced from certain shale has a long history in the Mountain West. The Center for the American West says oil shale contains a hydrocarbon so volatile that some pieces ignite when held to a flame. But Brenner says old-timers are skeptical.

"The old locals that live out in this country that are familiar with oil shale, they kind of tongue-in-cheek refer to it as 'The energy source of the future - and it always will be." "

In 1980, Exxon predicted that Colorado would be producing eight million gallons of oil a day from shale. Thirty years later, a single gallon of fuel has yet to be produced.

The Center for the American West's report on oil shale is at

The Interior Department release is at

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO