Report aims to shed light on oil shale debate

Study analyzes boom-bust cycles of earlier development efforts

When it comes to attempts to squeeze oil out of rock in places like northwestern Colorado, past results aren’t necessarily indicative of future performance, a new report says.

“What Every Westerner Should Know About Oil Shale,” released Wednesday by the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says the failures of previous attempts at oil shale development don’t necessarily suggest the same fate for new ones.

“Our world today would be very different if people throughout history had walked away from endeavors after only two (or five or a dozen) unsuccessful attempts,” the report says.

Studying the tumultuous history of oil shale in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah offers lessons for energy companies, government officials and communities contemplating another possible boom, the study says.

The study, released only online at, attempts to take an unbiased look at the debate over oil shale in the West.

The center works to shed light on the West’s challenges and opportunities by addressing issues such as multiculturalism, community-building, fire policy, and land, water and energy use. Its new report was authored by Patty Limerick, a history professor and chair of the center’s board, and Jason Hanson, a center researcher.

The report explores the previous booms and busts surrounding attempts at oil shale development. It looks at current efforts under way by companies in Colorado and Utah and considers how companies and others might manage the social, economic and environmental issues that would arise with the creation of an oil shale industry.

In a news release, Hanson said the report’s intent is “to provide a safe port in the storm of data disputes that usually rage on topics like this. We want to encourage a more responsible, more informed and more productive decision-making process.”

Limerick said she is glad to see people on all sides talking about the issues involved in oil shale development.

“It’s spirit-lifting to see a society thinking, ‘No, we need to really think before we move ahead on this,’ ” said Limerick. “At long last, we have gotten to a stage of trying to think as hard as we can about our actions and their likely consequences. This seems like a really great act of maturation as a group of human beings.”

The report will be updated occasionally and provides space for comments and discussion.


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