Nor is success guaranteed. "If Shell's freeze wall doesn't work," says Vawter, "they may be back to ground zero." And even if technological designs do work, companies will have to spend several years getting the dozens of permits needed to go forward with development. They'll also be working to find access to water, which is tightly controlled in the West.
Meanwhile, falling oil prices this fall are once again raising concerns about oil shale's future, since oil prices in the $70 to $100 range are needed for oil shale to be profitable. Insiders say that big companies aren't too worried by the downward trend, since they expect prices to climb back upward over the next few years. But smaller companies looking to raise capital may find it increasingly hard to attract investment.