Oil shale is horribly destructive. It will poison ground water and rivers and kill human beings and wildlife in a terribly inefficient effort to wring the last few drops of petroleum out of our continent. But how will you convince your Uncle Ed that "drill, baby, drill" is dumb natural resource management? Here are a few ideas.
First, I don't think this is the time to resort to these extremely dangerous and difficult resources. If we were without other alternatives for oil and at war and under siege, perhaps we could justify going after oil shale on the basis of simple survival--if we would die individually or as a nation without it, maybe it would be worth the sacrifices involved.
I think this is a good argument for keeping oil shale buried: at some point the survival of the nation might depend on these resources of last resort. If we use up the resources now, they will not be there when we need them.
This is an argument designed to appeal to millennialists and conservatives in particular.
Second, the technology for recovery of shale and tar sands is monstrous. I don't think we have identified the best way to access this resource. I suspect that we might, at some point in the future, employ bacteria to pull the petroleum out of the rock. We might be able to use fusion-powered robot lasers to heat the rocks and simultaneously drill the needed holes to pull the oil out as the heat causes it to emerge from the rock. If we go forward now, with explosives and rock drills, using miners and very wasteful processes like excavation above and below a section of oil shale--above to drill the holes and to set the explosives, and below to recover the oil that drains out of the shattered and heated rock--to get a small percentage of the oil out of the shale, we will be wasting much of the resource just in recovering it. Many technologies lie on the horizon that would allow us to access the oil more efficiently as it is needed.
This is an argument designed to appeal to someone like Newt Gingrich--a technophile science fiction nut (the right is full of them--they often masquerade as libertarians) who is able to look forward with glee to a future with flying cars and two-way wrist radios. Accepting this argument will allow them to be wide-eyed with their vision of the future with plentiful petroleum and fusion robot lasers turning oily rock into a fountain of rocky oil.
Both of these arguments seem to concede that we will access this resource at some point--but the technologies necessary to go after the oil will themselves be useful in supplanting oil as a fuel. Bacteria can be used to gather oil out of shale or tar sand, but they can also be used to separate hydrogen from oxygen to make a clean and cheap fuel wherever there is water available. Fusion lasers, if they are ever actually developed, could be used to generate and distribute the energy we now create by burning petroleum and electrical distribution over wires. And fusion-powered robots could simply carry us in their arms or a specially made adult-size snuggli from point to point, eliminating the need for cars.
These arguments are constructed to appeal to two large groups of individual conservatives likely to be on the forefront of the move to extract oil shale.
It's important to remember that any oil pulled out of the shale will most likely go to the highest bidder and won't remain here on US soil. Even now, we export most of the oil pumped on US soil. We will probably be rivers and vast amounts of scarce ground water in order to let Chinese people can drive larger domestic cars. Even right wingers who dearly love oil and the devastation wrought by the extraction industry might react to this line of argument because they hate the Chinese, either because they look different from caucasians, or because their skin is slightly darker than caucasian skin, or because they are commies. Throw in the word "chicom"--a contraction of "Chinese communist" common in the 1950s and 60s and still commonly used among a particular circle of pea brained neo-McCarthyites even those right wingers who have learned not to display their essential racism can't resist being goaded by the "c" word.
Contact the Bureau of Land Management and tell them how you feel about oil shale mining: click here