Yes, it’s true. Shale oil is a highly untapped opportunity for the US when it comes to energy independence. Proponents are quick to point out that there are more than a trillion barrels of oil locked in the shale deposits of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, more than all the proven crude-oil reserves on the planet, and this would be enough to meet current U.S. oil demand for an entire century.
While I personally am not opposed to the extraction efforts of shale oil reserves, the truth is, it may not be as easy or economical as many think to tap into this resource. So what’s holding us back? Three things that I can think of…
The first problem is in the financial and ecological costs of extracting the oil. Shale oil naturally occurs in the form of kerogens, solid, waxy substances with a texture similar to that of ChapStick. Once the kerogens are heated to over 500 F, they exude hydrocarbons, which must be treated with hydrogen in order to be processed into usable fuel—a highly energy-intensive process that releases large amounts of CO2.
The second issue is that just to get at these kerogens, energy companies would need to mine and process millions of tons of shale from the earth. This would leave toxic heavy metals and sulfates that many think will seep into our groundwater. This becomes a water contamination issue.
And the last problem shale oil faces is that the mining and processing of shale requires vast amounts of water. To produce 2.5 million barrels of shale oil per day would require 105 million to 315 million gallons of water daily. That might be the biggest deal breaker of all for dry and high desert western states.
So while extracting the oil from U.S. shale may technically be possible, when it comes to the cost and scale of such an enterprise – both financially speaking and considering natural resources – it may be a while before the ROI is justifiable compared to other foreign sources.