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Oil shale is an organic-rich fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen (a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds) from which liquid hydrocarbons called shale oil (not to be confused with tight oil—crude oil occurring naturally in shales) can be produced. Shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil; however, extracting shale oil from oil shale is more costly than the production of conventional crude oil both financially and in terms of its environmental impact. Deposits of oil shale occur around the world, including major deposits in the United States. A 2016 estimate of global deposits set the total world resources of oil shale equivalent of 6.05 trillion barrels (962 billion cubic metres) of oil in place.
Heating oil shales to a sufficiently high temperature causes the chemical process of pyrolysis to yield a vapor. Upon cooling the vapor, the liquid shale oil—an unconventional oil—is separated from combustible oil-shale gas (the term shale gas can also refer to gas occurring naturally in shales). Oil shale can also be burned directly in furnaces as a low-grade fuel for power generation and district heating or used as a raw material in chemical and construction-materials processing.
Oil shales gains attention as a potential abundant source of oil whenever the price of crude oil rises. At the same time, oil-shale mining and processing raise a number of environmental concerns, such as land use, waste disposal, water use, waste-water management, greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution. Estonia and China have well-established oil shale industries, and Brazil, Germany, and Russia also utilize oil shale.
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