The Bush administration’s latest push to force dirty energy extraction down the throats of Americans living in western states has some historical pedigree. Extracting oil from keragen — somewhat misleadingly known as "oil shale" — by cooking the rock at high temperatures is an environmental, social and economic nightmare that’s been with us since the 17th century. It’s come and gone in various countries at various times, most persistently in such vibrant, prosperous democracies as Russia and Estonia, but it really blew up in the wake of the 1970s oil crash. In the early ’70s, companies like Exxon, Chevron and Shell were pushed toward oil shale development by an Interior Dept. leasing program (sound familiar?).
That expansion was followed by a spectacular crash; on 2 May 1982, so-called "Black Sunday," Exxon shut down its $5 billion Colony Shale Oil Project and left thousands of families stranded and jobless. It’s boom and bust, the "resource curse," the oldest fossil fuel story in the book, and the U.S. is no more immune than any other country.
But now oil prices are back up, and it’s a good bet they’re going to stay up for the duration. That means oil shale is coming back into the picture, not only in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, but in Australia, China and other countries with large deposits.
This time, the industry says, it has new technology that allows it to extract usable oil from shale "in situ" — that is, in place, instead of strip mining the rock — with no environmental damage at all. There are a range of techniques, but they mostly involve super-heating the rock, effectively fast-forwarding geological processes until usable crude bubbles up. This raises the prospect of oil leaking into water tables, so Shell, for instance, creates a "freeze-wall" around the site with pipes filled with frozen ammonia, sometimes extending over 1,500 feet down. All the heating and cooling requires enormous amounts of energy and water, both precious and rare commodities in the arid, dry West.
Of course, ahem, the technology is in testing and, er, might not be ready for a decade or two and, um, if it doesn’t work out they may need to strip mine anyway. But let’s go ahead with the leases!
If this all sounds familiar, it should. A great many energy-intensive, water-intensive, heavy-infrastructure-intensive, centralized, highly polluting oil alternatives — oil shale, oil sands, "clean coal," liquid coal — have recently become economically viable, and are likely to stay that way. Oil prices may fluctuate a bit, but they almost certainly aren’t going to come down substantially.
This is an inflection point in our history. If Americans believe there’s no other way to reduce energy costs than to exploit hard-to-get-at domestic fossil fuels, they will support oil shale etc. no matter the horrific consequences for the climate.
Everything now depends on proving the viability of clean energy. The race is on.