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25 Important Pros and Cons of Shale Oil

The extraction and utilization of shale oil have been the subject of intense political debate, making it a controversial topic. This unconventional oil has been utilized since the early 14th century and has gained popularity due to the ever-increasing demand for energy coupled with the advent of advanced technology. In this post, we shall delve into the pros and cons of shale oil.

Shale oil refers to crude oil that is situated between shale rock formations. The oil is extracted from shale, a common sedimentary rock containing organic materials known as kerogen, which can yield oil and natural gas.

The rising demand for energy has made shale oil a viable and attractive source, particularly in the United States. This fossil fuel contains hydrocarbons that make it potent for energy production.

Despite its many benefits, shale oil considerably impacts our environment. While it may be cost-effective, its extraction can be challenging and has significant environmental implications.

Given its importance as a significant energy source in many countries, it is vital to fully comprehend the pros and cons of shale oil.

This blog post will examine the environmental impact of shale oil extraction and production and the economic implications of using this type of energy. A comprehensive understanding of shale oil’s potential is crucial in determining its suitability as an energy source.

What is shale?

shale oil rocks
Image by [ Amcyrus2012 ] used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Before delving into the pros and cons of shale oil, it is essential first to understand its origin. There is no need to search for the meaning of shale or its definition, as we have done the work for you.

Shale is a sedimentary rock formed by the consolidation of clay, silt, or mud. Due to its softness, this rock can be readily cleaved into thin slabs.

Shale rocks typically contain clay minerals and quartz and may also have carbonate minerals, pyrite, and other constituents. These rocks are primarily found in the ocean or shallow seas and can also be in shale rock formations with limestone layers.

Marcellus Shale Close Up
Image by [ Lvklock ] used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Shale is the most abundant sedimentary rock and the primary hydrocarbon source. Shale rock formations exhibit a laminated structure parallel to the bedding plane’s surface. Large deposits of shale, which have the potential to produce shale oil, can be found in the Marcellus Shale and Williston Basin.

However, shale is a rock, so where does the oil come from? While shale appears to be a solid rock, it is not. Under microscopic examination, spaces within the shale rock containing kerogen and gas can be observed.

See Related: What is the Environmental Impact of Fracking?

What is oil shale?

Oil Shale
Image by [ Don Macedone ] used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Oil shale is a sedimentary rock originating from the remnants of organic matter, such as plants and animals, which have accumulated for millions of years. These organic materials have been trapped in shale rocks through intense heat and pressure.

The shale rocks contain high amounts of kerogen, which, when exposed to heat and oxygen, releases hydrocarbons that constitute most of the fossil fuels used today. But how did these lifeless beings transform into fuels, and how did they turn rock-like energies?

In the distant past, the remains of dead plants and animals drifted toward the ocean floor and became buried under a new layer of sediment. These organic materials underwent a natural decomposition process, resulting in kerogen formation.

Over time, with increased heat and pressure, this kerogen transformed into crude oil and natural gas trapped within the shale rock formations. Natural gas trapped within shale rock is a highly sought-after energy source that has gained immense popularity recently owing to its abundant availability and multiple uses in various sectors.

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Oil shale vs. shale oil

Oil Shale vs Shale Oil

In the world of geology and energy production, the terms “oil shale” and “shale oil” can be easily mistaken for one another despite having distinctive differences.

Oil shale is a sedimentary rock with low permeability rich in organic material called kerogen. The kerogen found in oil shale can be transformed into shale oil through thermal degradation, exposing the rock to high temperatures and pressures.

In contrast, shale oil is crude oil naturally occurring within shale rock formations. Shale oil is typically extracted through hydraulic fracturing, which involves drilling into the rock and injecting water, sand, and chemicals to release the trapped oil.

It is important to note that oil shale and shale oil are not to be confused with oil-bearing shale, which is underground shale formations containing trapped petroleum. The distinctions between these terms are significant, and understanding them is crucial for accurate communication within the energy sector.

See Related: Green Revolution Pros and Cons to Know

How is Shale Oil extracted?

processed shale oil samples
Image by [ Martin Brown ] from The U.S. National Archives

Shale oil is a valuable resource that can be extracted from oil shale through several methods, including hydrogenation, thermal dissolution, and pyrolysis. While hydrogenation and thermal dissolution rely on solvents or hydrogen donors, pyrolysis remains the most widely employed method.

Pyrolysis involves heating oil shale to high temperatures without oxygen, transforming the kerogen within the rock into shale vapor and gas. This process must be conducted without oxygen, as exposure to oxygen would cause combustion rather than pyrolysis. Once the shale vapor and gas are generated, they are cooled and condensed to yield shale oil.

While pyrolysis is the most commonly used method for extracting shale oil, each technique has unique advantages and limitations. A thorough understanding of the various methods is essential for effectively utilizing shale oil resources and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our energy supplies.

By understanding the methods of extracting shale oil from oil shale, we can better appreciate the complexity and importance of this energy source. Exploring and developing safe and sustainable extraction methods is crucial to maximizing its potential benefits while minimizing any negative impact on our environment and society.

See Related: Different Types of Green Energy

Pros and Cons of Shale Oil

Shale oil and shale gas have emerged as significant energy sources in recent years, sparking discussions about their advantages and disadvantages. So, let’s delve into the pros and cons of shale oil and shale gas, analyzing the benefits and drawbacks associated with their extraction and utilization.

Advantages of Shale Oil

West Lothian Shale Bings
Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

1. Global Abundance

One of the significant advantages of shale oil is its global abundance. Shale is the most prevalent sedimentary rock found on Earth. Specifically, the United States has the most extensive shale reserves worldwide, estimated to last more than a century. This vast shale oil reservoir presents a reliable energy source that can meet the world’s growing demand for fossil fuels.

2. Possible Substitute for Conventional Fossil Fuels

The utilization of shale oil as a possible substitute for conventional fossil fuels offers a diverse set of advantages. Most notably, shale oil can be subjected to refinement processes that create various fuels, such as diesel fuel, gasoline, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG). This, in turn, furnishes a way to supplement the current supply of traditional fuels.

3. Preserve Natural Resources

Shale oil extraction yields a residual substance, commonly called spent shale, containing minerals and char. Upon combustion, the char produces shale ash. Remarkably, the spent shale and ash possess properties that make them suitable for use as building materials, such as cement and bricks.

Therefore, incorporating these byproducts in construction offers a sustainable waste management approach while preserving precious natural resources.

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4. Source of Employment

The shale oil sector is vital to employment, and the industry’s workforce is extensive. The abundance of shale oil has provided employment opportunities, particularly in areas grappling with economic difficulties.

Through the shale oil industry, these impoverished regions have been able to offer job prospects to those who previously struggled to secure gainful employment. Furthermore, those employed in the shale oil industry enjoy higher salaries than the average private wage earner, boosting the local economy.

5. Source of Revenue for Landowners

The utilization of shale resources as a means of generating income is an attractive prospect for many landowners. By granting access to their lands for oil and gas extraction, they are compensated with payments for utilizing these valuable resources. This mutually beneficial arrangement has been demonstrated to be a significant source of revenue for numerous landowners, especially those residing in regions with plentiful shale reserves.

6. Energy Independence

Using oil shale for energy production endows countries possessing significant oil shale deposits with the opportunity to attain energy self-sufficiency. By producing oil domestically, such countries can circumvent the need to import oil from foreign nations, potentially reducing their reliance on costly foreign oil sources.

Consequently, this can translate into significant cost savings for these countries regarding foreign exchange and energy expenditure.

7. Economic resurgence in certain areas with abundant shale reserves

The advent of shale oil and gas extraction has led to an economic revival in regions with large shale reserves. Notably, the United States Energy Information Administration reported that the country could produce nearly all the natural gas it consumed through shale gas production.

This economic boost has translated to increased employment opportunities, new business establishments, and local economies’ growth in shale oil and gas-producing regions.

8. Lower oil and gas prices

Shale serves as an alternative source of fuel that complements conventional ones. The extraction and utilization of shale oil and gas introduce competition into the oil market, reducing prices. This outcome ultimately results in more affordable fuel prices, facilitating access to energy for more people and promoting greater convenience in various aspects of life.

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Disadvantages of Shale Oil

Oil Shale Mine

1. Less efficient than conventional crude oil and natural gas

While viable energy sources, shale oil, and shale gas are less efficient than conventional crude and natural gas. Unlike traditional sources that readily yield oil and gas upon drilling, shale oil and gas are trapped inside shale rocks, requiring an additional extraction process called fracking.

Unfortunately, this hydraulic fracturing process releases more emissions and waste, leading to concerns about its environmental impact.

2. Significant amount of waste disposed of in wastewater disposal wells.

Shale oil production is associated with a range of adverse environmental effects. This is due to the hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques used in the production process. To extract shale oil, companies create a vertical well, followed by a horizontal well, which they drill into the shale rock.

Subsequently, a substantial amount of hydraulic fracturing fluid is pumped at high pressure to break the rock. Unfortunately, this process produces a significant amount of waste disposed of in wastewater disposal wells. This practice is known to cause serious consequences, such as increasing the incidence of earthquakes in affected areas.

3. Threat to natural habitats and wildlife

Shale oil extraction poses a significant threat to natural habitats and wildlife as it involves various destructive methods. The drilling of land, crushing of oil shale, and other techniques used in the process can result in irreversible environmental damage, driving wildlife away from the drilling sites and ruining vast tracts of land.

4. Produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming

The combustion of shale oil and natural gas produces greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming and contribute to climate change. Carbon dioxide is also released during hydraulic fracking, the only means of extracting shale oil and natural gas reserves. Despite assertions that hydraulic fracturing has a minimal environmental impact, the process substantially affects the planet.

5. Deplete finite reserves

The hydraulic fracturing process utilized to extract shale oil and gas involves using vast quantities of fracking fluid, including water, sand, and chemicals. The production of such fluid consumes significant amounts of resources, depleting finite reserves. Moreover, the chemicals in the fracking fluid can adversely affect human health, which is a concern.

6. The drilling of shale affects local communities’ water supply

The drilling of shale and extracting natural gas has been found to have detrimental effects on local communities’ water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted rigorous scientific research demonstrating the negative impact of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” on drinking water resources.

Indeed, fracking fluid significantly threatens the quality and purity of drinking water in affected areas. The potential for this fluid to seep into local water supplies and cause contamination is a serious concern.

7. Hydraulic Fracturing was excluded from the scope of the Safe Drinking Water Act

In a significant legislative exemption, the natural gas industry, along with its associated hydraulic fracturing technology, was excluded from the purview of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Despite the well-documented and substantial harm these operations can inflict upon vital water resources, the government has declined to impose meaningful sanctions upon this sector.

8. Higher costs for extraction

The procurement of shale oil demands a higher cost than traditional fossil fuels due to the extensive effort and labor required during the drilling process. In addition, the extraction of shale oil is a more intricate process, which adds to the overall complexity and cost of the operation.

9. Ex-situ shale oil extraction includes underground mining that destroys retort sites

Ex-situ shale oil extraction entails underground mining, followed by a crushing and retorting process whereby heat is applied to a specialized vessel known as a retort. This thermal treatment of the material facilitates kerogen breakdown and produces shale oil. However, it should be noted that these procedures have significant environmental implications, particularly at the retort sites.

10. In-situ shale extraction deposits harmful byproducts underground, which affect water sources and the environment.

In situ, shale extraction is a method of extracting shale oil that differs from conventional practices in that it does not involve the prior extraction of shales before heating. This process obviates the need for drilling pits or mining.

Instead, the oil shales are subjected to underground heating, and the resulting fluids are pumped out for processing. However, it is essential to note that this process can result in the deposition of harmful byproducts underground, which may adversely affect water sources and the environment.

11. Subjected to High Temperatures

In cement production, shale and crushed limestone components are subjected to high temperatures, facilitating water’s evaporation and transforming limestone into carbon dioxide and calcium oxide.

12. Decline of the shale industry affects employment and landowner’s revenue

The onset of pandemic-related restrictions profoundly impacted shale oil companies, forcing them to reduce production. Consequently, compensation paid to landowners witnessed a substantial decline during this period.

Furthermore, the employment prospects within the shale oil industry have been greatly diminished as well, with many positions becoming increasingly scarce.

13. Depletion of shale oil resources and governmental policies add to the industry’s pressures

The shale oil industry’s future is uncertain, especially compared to pre-pandemic times. The depletion of shale oil resources, investor pressure, and the lingering effects of the pandemic have compounded the sector’s challenges.

Moreover, governmental policies mandating the transition to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources with reduced carbon emissions add to the industry’s pressures.

14. Available sources of shale oil continue to diminish

While shale oil has undoubtedly contributed to energy independence in recent years, this achievement may be short-lived due to the gradual depletion of shale oil resources. As a result, there is a possibility that workers within the sector may face the prospect of being laid off in the future as the available sources of shale oil continue to diminish.

15. Delayed switch to alternatives

The current prevalence and utilization of shale oil and gas can potentially delay the transition to renewable energy sources. This is primarily due to the comparatively lower costs and more excellent reliability of oil and natural gas, which currently enjoy more widespread consumer preference than alternative energy sources.

16. Negative effects on health and daily life

Amidst the ongoing discourse regarding shale gas and oil extraction, a crucial drawback often overlooked is its impact on the daily lives of individuals living near these operations. The noise generated during drilling, the construction of facilities, and the transportation of materials to the drilling site can all contribute to significant disturbances for nearby residents.

Moreover, the adverse effects of air and water contamination from these operations can have profound health implications for those in the immediate vicinity.

17. Shale oil is considered a Group 1 carcinogen that causes cancer in humans

As per the classification of the World Health Organization, shale oil is deemed a Group 1 carcinogen, implying that it can potentially cause cancer in humans. The underlying reason for this classification lies in shale oil’s chemical composition, known to possess carcinogenic properties. It is noteworthy that even upgraded shale oil, although less potent, has been found to have cancer-causing effects.

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Differences between shale oil, crude oil, and natural gas

Where do they come from?

Fossil fuel mining

Shale oil is a form of oil extracted from shale rocks located within the Earth’s crust at depths up to 9,000 feet below the surface. Shale oil is typically trapped in small batches within the shale rocks.

It stands in contrast to crude oil, typically found in more extensive deposits and located approximately 6,000 feet underground. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that natural gas often coexists with shale oil and crude oil deposits.

How do oil companies get them?

Shale Oil Extraction Shakers
Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Shale oil extraction involves vertical and horizontal drilling, followed by the fracturing of shale to extract the oil. On the other hand, crude oil companies employ a comparatively straightforward process that involves digging a pit directly into the Earth and utilizing specialized equipment to extract the crude oil.

In both cases, the extracted oil undergoes refining processes to obtain a purer form of oil fatt. It is worth noting that natural gas is obtained through shale and crude oil extraction methods. However, natural gas requires less extensive refining procedures than shale and crude oil.

See Related: Important Pros and Cons of Offshore Drilling

Interesting Facts about Shale Oil

Shale Oil Rock
Georgialh / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here are some interesting and informative facts about shale oil:

  • Shale oil was historically used for coloring in textiles and leather tanning due to its ability to produce potassium aluminum sulfate, a useful colorant.
  • Shale oil now makes up the majority of crude oil production in the United States, accounting for 64% of the country’s crude oil output in 2021.
  • The U.S. is currently the world’s most significant crude oil producer thanks to its abundance of shale, although oil shale deposits can be found in over 30 countries globally.
  • Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming are home to some of the world’s largest and most concentrated shale oil deposits. The Green River Formation alone contains nearly 2 trillion barrels of oil reserves.
  • Fracking fluid, used to extract shale oil, typically combines water and sand with silica sand, often used to keep shale fractures open.
  • Fracking a single well can require up to 16 million gallons of water and 10,000 tons of sand, making it a resource-intensive process.
  • While it is rare for fracking to cause earthquakes, the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations can result in induced tremors due to changes in pressure acting on existing faults.
  • Shale oil differs from tight oil, with shale oil being extracted exclusively from shale deposits, while tight oil can be found in shale, carbonate, and sandstone formations.
  • Shale oil undergoes several refining processes before it can be used, including pyrolysis, hydrotreating, hydrocracking, and delayed cooking, transforming the oil into usable forms.
  • Shale comes in three major categories – marine, lacustrine, and terrestrial – depending on the origin of the organic matter that makes up the shale deposits.
  • Different types of shale have varying mineral contents, with siliceous shale being the most impurity-free and, therefore, less costly to refine than other types.
  • Shale oil can produce diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, and gasoline.
  • Shale oil has a long and fascinating history of use, from caulking ships and paving roads to fueling the Industrial Revolution and even serving as fuel for flaming arrows in Mongolian battles.
  • Betton’s British Oil, a distilled shale oil product, was once believed to have medicinal properties and was used to treat various ailments.


What can we make from shale oil?

Shale oil is a multi-faceted commodity that presents numerous applications. This sedimentary rock-based oil can be refined into various products such as petroleum, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and other fossil fuel-based materials, which have been crucial in powering modern society.

What is the Marcellus Shale?

The Marcellus Shale, an extensive black shale formation, is located in the eastern region of North America, spanning the length of the Appalachian basin. This basin comprises a vast area of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, from New York to Tennessee. Formed approximately 390 million years ago, this rock formation is rich in organic matter and hydrocarbons and has become a significant source of natural gas and oil in the United States.

What are black shales?

Black shales are fine-grained sedimentary rocks characterized by their dark coloration and high organic matter levels. These rocks contain significant hydrocarbons that can be extracted to produce oil and natural gas through thermal maturation.

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