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Untapped: The story behind the Green River Shale Formation

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).


Photo Courtesy: 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.

Related: Niobrara production continues to grow


  1. This article partially addresses the challenge of producing oil from the oil shale of the Green River Formation. The numbers cited by the author are actually out of date. The total potential oil in place in the Green River Formation is actually 4.29 trillion barrels. Only about 1.1 trillion barrels of this are contained in rocks with >15 gallons per ton richness. The actual recoverable amount depends heavily on the method applied. It is likely that currently technically viable techniques could recover several hundred billion barrels. It is wrong to say “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.” Only the solid organic matter (kerogen) in the shale converts to oil and gas, but both surface and inset methods have been technically effective in converting the kerogen to oil and gas. While Shell and Chevron have stopped work in the Green River Formation, ExxonMobil and Total remain committed to testing of in situ methods and, for Total, moving ahead in Utah on a production scale test of novel technology. That large test follows successful small scale testing, and is under construction now. Shale oil has been produced from oil shale for about eighty years in Estonia, as well as in Brazil and China. Shell continues to explore development of oil shale in Jordan, where the government is not furtively stifling development. Other projects are proceeding in Mongolia, Australia, and Morocco. Production is relatively modest (~35,000 BOPD), but consistently growing for the last decade. If all projects now sufficiently advanced to make projections of their production were to come to fruition, production could exceed 500,000 BOPD by 2030. There is no clear evidence that oil shale production in the Western United States could not be executed in compliance with existing environmental regulations for air pollution and habitat preservation.

    Jeremy Boak, Director
    Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
    Colorado School of Mines
    Golden CO 80401
    Viewpoints are mine, not positions of the Colorado School of Mines

  2. Yes, but companies like Red Leaf and GoGAS are working on ways to unlock the sale. Red Leaf seems close; so we’ll see!

  3. The problem with oil shale is that the content of oil per tonne is only 7% and the 93% which has to be discarded is a big problem for digging out the shale. Even otherwise, the total shale is 1 trillion barrels and the eroi ratio mau be 1-2. If it turns out to be 1 including cost of transportation and refining, it will be unviable or at least require natural gas of that much energy in turn depleting gas. It is just a trade off which I am not sure will ever work out. Coal liquefaction which produces 2 barrels per tonne of bituminous coal is Better. I also don’t understand what will happen to petrochemical and plastics if sweet oil runs out and these synthetic oil is needed

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