An Assessment of the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of Oil Shale

An Assessment of the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of Oil Shale

Findings show oil shale is, at best, a marginal energy source. A report prepared for WRA by Dr. Cutler Cleveland, a Professor of Geography and Environment at Boston University, indicates oil shale may not produce any more energy than is consumed in the process to turn it into fuel. Combined with its high GHG emissions and the water-intensive nature of the extraction process, oil shale has has more drawbacks than benefits.

Energy Return on Investment, or EROI, is a commonly-used calculation of how much energy is needed to locate, extract, and refine an output of energy – in this case, oil from shale. In more technical terms, EROI is the ratio of the energy delivered by a process to the energy used directly and indirectly for that process. An EROI of 1:1 means no energy is gained from producing the energy resource. In evaluating the studies conducted to date on the energy value of oil shale, Dr. Cleveland’s analysis shows oil shale is, at best, a marginal energy source with an EROI considerably less than the EROI of conventional crude oil, both at the wellhead and at the refined fuel stages of processing.

The oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are being promoted as a fuel source of the future. What the EROI for oil shale shows is that should oil shale ever be commercially developed, it would be a poor energy source. This nation must clearly understand the trade-offs it will be making if oil shale becomes a significant transportation fuel source. In exchange for a fuel that may not produce more energy that it consumes, the costs of water used, impaired water and air quality, negative climate impacts, and destruction of public lands must also be considered. Before expending public or private dollars to support any future commercial development projects, we must evaluate, among other considerations, the EROI for oil shale. The picture it paints raises serious concerns.

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