The development of "oil shale" (not to be confused with "shale oil") and "tar sands" has been shown to be environmentally destructive, and water and energy intensive. Extracting oil from U.S. public lands through oil shale or tar sands would deal a disastrous blow to any hope of reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to below 350 parts per million  — the level we need to reach soon to stabilize Earth's climate. Besides helping push us toward global warming catastrophe, oil shale and tar sands development destroys species habitat, wastes enormous volumes of water, pollutes air and water, and degrades and defiles vast swaths of land.

Tar-sands development is already occurring in some places in the United States — and has taken off big in Alberta, Canada (a country also pondering oil-shale development). In fact, it has become one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions in that country. In the United States, despite the wastefulness, pollution and serious climate dangers that go along with oil shale and tar sands development, oil companies want access to millions of acres of public lands for the practice in the Colorado River basin. These lands, currently open to the public for top-quality outdoor recreation, include prime trout-fishing areas, America's healthiest elk herds, rare plants found nowhere else in the world, and many endangered and threatened species. These are also areas that support rural lifestyles passed down for generations — not places to locate strip mines, oil refineries, power plants, and all the highways, pipelines, power lines and dumpsites to support them.


In March 2013 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management amended 10 resource-management plans in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, making 687,600 acres available for oil shale leasing and 132,100 acres available for tar sands leasing. The BLM refused to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure protection for endangered species, despite acknowledging that development would likely affect the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker, Mexican spotted owl and other threatened and endangered species.

The Center and a coalition of allies have filed suit against the BLM, challenging its failure to comply with the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act prior to deciding whether to open these hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands for potential oil shale and tar sands leasing and development. Our lawsuit aims to compel BLM to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered species and the habitat they need to survive and recover.

The BLM's 2013 decision to open these public lands to oil shale and tar sand leasing was made possible under the Bush administration, which after meetings with the oil and gas industry pushed forward the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Subsequently, despite widespread, opposition BLM published regulations in 2008 for commercial oil leasing and development: so-called "rules of the road" for a program that wasn't even financially practicable at that time. The Bush administration's BLM also finalized amendments to 10 land-use management plans governing the public lands in the region, opening more than 2 million acres available for potential commercial development of oil shale and tar sands. 

In 2009 the Center joined a coalition of groups in filing two suits showing that the Bush-era BLM broke the law — first, by amending the management plans in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming without giving the public a chance to appeal the decision; and second, by drafting regulations for a commercial oil shale program without sufficiently addressing environmental impacts. In February of that year, the Obama Department of the Interior announced it would offer a second round of research, development and demonstration leases for oil shale on public lands in Colorado and Utah and withdraw the Bush administration's proposal for expanded leases. But former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar then stated and reiterated that development of oil shale and tar sands would remain an option in energy planning — leaving the path wide open for the BLM's 2013 decision.

The Center seeks to prevent any oil shale or tar sands development on public lands, including the unacceptable extraction and combustion of oil, the consumption of water and energy attending that extraction, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to opposing domestic oil shale and tar sands development in the Colorado River basin, we're working hard against the practice of fracking nationwide and in California.


Strip mining in the Colorado River basin would destroy vast tracts of land and habitat and mobilize toxins threatening watersheds of the Colorado River and its tributaries. In addition, the BLM's decision comes as atmospheric CO2 concentrations are reaching 400 parts per million, a milestone in human history. Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from oil shale and tar sands development in the Colorado River basin would far exceed that of conventional oil, which we can see from the fact that emissions from Alberta's tar sands development already exceed those of conventional oil by several times. 

Unconventional for a Reason

Oil shale is a form of sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, which is released as a petroleum-like liquid when the rock is heated. Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen, which is a heavy hydrocarbon. Like the kerogen in oil shale, tar sands' bitumen can be upgraded to synthetic crude oil. Because developing fossil fuels from these resources is different and more intensive than traditional energy production, such as coal mining or oil and gas drilling, oil shale and tar sands are referred to as unconventional fuel sources. 

There are two shale-oil extraction methods — neither of which has proved to be viable in the United States. One method is similar to coal extraction and involves underground, open-pit, or strip mining. Unlike coal production, however, this method of oil shale production requires the added steps of pulverizing the shale and then cooking it in giant kilns to drive off the oil. A second method involves drilling tightly spaced wells across thousands of acres of land and injecting heat into the ground for several years in order to heat the kerogen so it can be released for further upgrading and refining. This method is called the "in situ method." Despite the maze of pipes and pumps used with this method, it can't produce significant oil volumes for decades.

Developing tar sands is similar to developing oil shale. The bitumen from tar sands can be extracted either through traditional mining techniques — including massive strip mining — or by using a form of in situ as described above. As with oil shale, once released, the bitumen from tar sands must be upgraded and refined further before it's usable as a fuel source.

Worse for Climate Change Than Coal 

Producing oil from shale or tar sands is dirtier than the dirtiest coal. This is particularly true for oil shale development, since an incredible amount of energy is required to squeeze a barrel of oil out of stone. In fact, the production of every barrel of shale oil sends 50 percent more CO2 into the atmosphere than the production of one barrel of crude oil. This is unacceptable at a time when we must be dramatically reducing our CO2 emissions — not redoubling them. Fuel efficiency, public transit, better urban planning, and a new generation of vehicles are better investments to reduce foreign imports during the next 30 years. 

A Waste of Water We Don't Have in the First Place

The Colorado River supplies water to about 30 million people and irrigates about 3.5 million acres of farmland. All 15 million acre-feet of the Colorado River's annual flow have already been allocated for use. During many years, the river is so overtaxed it doesn't have a drop left by the time it reaches the sea. Meanwhile, reservoir levels are falling to record-low levels.

But all significant shale oil and tar sands resources sit in the Colorado River basin. Because development of these resources would require vast quantities of water, it's likely — if not certain — that a commercial leasing program would put incredible stress on an already overstressed and irreplaceable resource. According to U.S. Department of Energy figures, replacing current OPEC oil imports with shale oil would cost us as much as 1.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River basin water every year — enough to drain Lake Mead dry in fewer than 10 years. Meanwhile, the West is facing water shortages due to lengthy droughts brought on by climate change, as well as continued and expected growth in the region. Climate change predictions call for less rain and more evaporation in the future.

Oil-spill Cleanup Safety Questionable — and Questions Unanswered

An existing tar sands pipeline running through the United States from Alberta, called Keystone 1, was billed as the safest pipeline in history when it was built in 2010 — yet it spilled 12 times in its first year of operation, more than any pipeline in U.S. history. Other tar sands pipelines have also spilled — with disastrous consequences. The cost of cleaning up the massive Kalamazoo, Mich. spill was estimated at $1 billion, with experts questioning whether habitat in the area would ever be restored. A 2013 tar sands oil spill in a Mayflower, Ark. neighborhood forced residents to abandon their homes and made some residents sick by exposing the community to carcinogenic benzene. 

Conventional crude floats on the surface of water, but when tar sands oil spills, the heavy bitumen sinks and the benzene-containing diluents evaporate, rendering traditional spill cleanup technology useless and exposing people nearby to dangerous vapors. 

A study on tar sands pipelines released by the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 — during a peak of criticism of the planned Keystone XL pipeline — failed to evaluate the difficulty of cleaning up tar sands spills, instead focusing only on the possible likelihood of tar sands crude to cause more spills than other heavy crude oil. The study did not consider the safety record of currently operating tar sands pipelines or investigate the difficulty of cleaning up inevitable spills.

Book Cliffs photo © David Searls