Let’s start with a metaphor, shall we? Have you ever been watching your favorite sports team, and there’s that one player on the team with overflowing amounts of untapped potential who can’t ever find a way to harness it? Or how about this. You’re a teacher. You have a classroom full of eager learners, especially little Johnny in the back of the class, who is a closet genius, but while in school he has “other priorities.” As a teacher, you’re frustrated. You’re puzzled. Heck, you may even be angry. Why? Because deep down you know little Johnny in the back of the classroom could be the smartest kid in school if he only applied himself. In both cases, the athlete and the student, each are giving you about 50 percent effort, and with that 50 percent effort, they still find themselves ahead of the rest. Frustrating, isn’t it, when someone or something isn’t reaching its full potential? Now let’s bring this metaphor full circle. That same 50 percent “effort” being used by the athlete and the student (metaphorically) is also being used by gas and oil companies drilling within the Green River Shale Formation—but it’s not entirely the fault of the shale formation.
The Green River Formation is an assemblage of over 1,000 feet of sedimentary rocks that lie beneath parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming that contains the world’s largest deposits of oil shale. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the Green River Formation contains about 3 trillion barrels of oil—yes I said trillion—with only half of it being recoverable, depending on available technology and economic conditions. So if my math is correct, the Green River Formation has the capability to produce around 1.5 trillion barrels of oil until it has been tapped dry. In comparison, 1.5 trillion barrels of oil is about equal to the entire world’s proven oil reserves. Colorado alone contains about 1,300,000 barrels of oil per acre on average, making it the most oil-rich deposit in the United States–and probably the entire world, according to the Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale (ECCOS).
We all know that shale formations such as the Bakken in North Dakota, Eagle Ford in Texas and Marcellus in Pennsylvania are all seeing rising production across the board due to hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing is a well-stimulation technique in which rock is fractured by a hydraulically pressurized liquid, usually involving chemicals and sand suspended in water. Despite hydraulic fracturing first being introduced as an experiment back in 1947, it isn’t until 2012 when the process gained steam and is now heavily regarded as the main driving force behind our nation’s current energy boom.
With that being said, the Green River Shale formation isn’t like any other shale formation in the United States because the fracking process has proven to be unsuccessful in the formation. Why? Well, unlike shale formations such as the Bakken or Eagle Ford, the oil shale in the Green River Shale formation has not responded to the methods used to convert the shale into liquid oil and gas. Commonly, producing oil from oil shale has been done in one of two ways: either the oil shale is brought to the surface and cooked, or an electric heater is placed deep beneath the surface at the base of the rocks to eat the shale, convert it into liquid oil and gas, and the bring it to the surface. Unfortunately, neither of these methods have proven economically viable to this point. In fact, both Shell and Chevron have abandoned their respective oil shale efforts in the Green River Shale formation after investing tens of millions of dollars into finding profitable extraction methods.
Aside from those technological challenges, the Green River Formation is also under a challenge from the federal government. Approximately three quarters of the Green River Formation lies beneath federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This puts the federal government in a unique scenario. Either they go ahead and drill, consequently creating jobs, boosting the local economy, and increasing gains from tax and royalty payments for federal and state governments, or they increase air pollution and negatively affect wildlife habitat.
So for now, the “potential” that lies deep beneath the rock of Colorado’s Western Slope will, for now, remain out of reach.