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Industrial shale-oil operations in North America and Europe predated the Drake discovery, but, since then, most have succumbed to competition from petroleum. However, the existence of enormous oil-shale resources in the Green River formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming [estimated at over a trillion bbl of shale oil in place] and the advancement of United States oil-shale technology by research and development programs of government and industry during the past 15 years point to a natural partnership of petroleum and oil shale to meet the accelerating energy demands of the future. The utilization of oil shale is not a question of limited petroleum supplies, but one of economics. Two factors are expected to improve the economic outlook for industrial shale-oil production a rise in petroleum replacement cost and further advances in oil-shale technology.
The production of oil from oil shale dates back to the 17th century, when medicinal oils were produced from bituminous shales in England. Shale-oil industries started in France in 1838; in Scotland in 1850; in Australia in 1860; in Estonia, Spain and Manchuria in the 1920's; and in South Africa and Sweden in the 1930's. A small shale-oil industry was operating in Canada and the eastern United States in 1860 but disappeared when petroleum became plentiful following the Drake discovery in Pennsylvania. Industrial operations in other countries generally have had similar experiences; that is, when petroleum became readily available at reasonable, cost, the oil-shale operations could not compete without sizable subsidies. Industrial operations are presently conducted only in Spain, Sweden, Estonia, Manchuria and the U.S.S.R.
Oil shales do not contain oil; instead, they consist of solid, largely insoluble, organic material intimately associated with a mixture of minerals that make up about 85 per cent of an average shale yielding 25 gal of oil per ton. Oil shales are widely distributed throughout the world in sedimentary rocks fray. Cambrian to Recent, but by far the largest known deposit is in the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Lewis G. Weeks in 1959 published a comprehensive analysis and forecast of demand and sources of supply of energy for the next 100 years. He estimated that, in addition to imported petroleum, the United States would use 490 billion bbl of the 570-billion-bbl ultimate reserve of domestic petroleum [including natural gas energy in equivalent bbl of petroleum and oil from tar sands] and 600 billion bbl of shale oil from 1960 to 2059. Although Weeks considered all of the oil-shale deposits throughout the U. S. as sources of shale oil, the 1.132 trillion bbl of potential oil in place in the Green River formation, as estimated by Donald Duncan of the Federal Geological Survey, constitutes almost twice the supply required to meet the need estimated by Weeks.