Yesterday I had the privilege of being invited on an EcoFlight aerial tour of the Piceance Basin. EcoFlight, headquartered in Aspen, is a not-for-profit, membership organization that works to protect remaining wilderness and wildlife habitat. One of their tactics is to offer “political decision makers, media representatives, concerned citizens, conservation groups, scientists, community and tribal leaders” tours of industrial sites on public lands via a low flying small plane.
This particular flight was organized by the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Six of us, including the pilot, climbed onto a small, single-engine airplane yesterday morning for a 45 minute flight over Colorado’s oil shale deposits. This is an area that is mostly public land, although there are some private landowners along the creeks. In addition to oil shale deposits, there is an active oil and gas (mostly gas) field. It is also home to some of the largest mule deer and elk herds in North America.
What is apparent from the air, but what is mostly hidden from the view of most visitors to this wilderness, is the vast scale of existing exploration and production in an area that has historically been noted for its excellent hunting and fishing, rather than industrial development. The cumulative effect of leasing activity is changing the landscape and wildlife habitat forever. It is impossible to put into words the scope of these projects, so I’ve posted photographs to WCC-Mesa’s Facebook page, which is linked below.
After the aerial tour, we hopped into an SUV, and spent the rest of the day driving to some of the installations. Our first stop was for lunch at the Pink Pig, a thriving business run out of a trailer at the side of the county road that once hosted 6,000 vehicles a day during the peak of exploration and construction. Directly across from the roadside restaurant, where there were long lines and limited seating, there was a “store” selling protective gear to the oil field workers. It occurred to me that some things never change. When miners came to Colorado in search of gold, entrepreneurs quickly followed, setting up shops to feed and clothe the miners. There is a “community” at the side of the road in the middle of a national forest, and you can shop using your credit and/or debit cards, with receipts sent to your smart phone.
Our next stop was at an oil shale lease where a freeze wall experiment is ongoing. This is a huge installation in the middle of nowhere. According to a former employee of the Division of Wildlife, prior to this project, a herd of elk occupied the space. The idea behind the experiment is that heated oil can be contained in an area if it is surrounded by frozen rocks. Shafts are drilled, and frozen liquids are pumped into them, effectively forming a wall of ice, which prevents oil in the interior reservoir from mixing with and polluting surface water.
Despite this project being on the edge of the same county road as the Pink Pig and clothing store, operators of the facility don’t want anyone around. Not long after we parked, and began taking pictures from different vantage points along the road, a white truck came rushing out of the area behind a security fence. The driver, who sounded like he was from West Texas, asked us who we were with and what we were doing there. We indicated that we were on an educational tour to learn about the industry, which seemed to be all the information he needed. He went back into the facility and set off an ear shattering alarm. I don’t know how often that alarm is sounded, but I can tell you that it would easily stampede a herd of elk or mule deer. It worked; it drove us away from the area. It also is why there are no elk or mule deer to be seen anywhere near the project. (We didn’t see any wildlife at all, until the end of the day, when we saw one lonely doe.)
From the freeze wall installation, we moved along to a baking soda plant. Your eyes are not deceiving you. Baking soda is manufactured on an experimental oil shale lease. When you look at the linked photos, the structure with a large cone shaped building is the baking soda plant.
Our final stop was at a gas processing plant known as the Enterprise.
It is impossible to wrap my head around how huge these installations are—and the oil shale leases are still experimental. We have already destroyed the wildlife habitat, and nobody has found a way to commercially produce oil from oil shale. Every ridge already has a road and/or well pad on it. A map of the wells is one of the photos in the link. On the map it looks like the land has chicken pox, except the infection is man’s lust for fossil fuels.