By Matthew Berger
The clear, sunny weather in the Grand Valley Tuesday morning was not quite so idyllic from up above. Flying over the valley in a six-seat Cessna, we felt every little gust of wind shooting up from the canyon walls.
But the view was unbeatable.
Two groups of high school students were flown above the Interstate 70 corridor to Battlement Mesa and back by Bruce Gordon, founder of Ecoflight, an Aspen-based nonprofit that provides flights in hopes of giving people a new perspective on the lands around them and how they are changing.
Tuesday, the focus was on energy development and the “spiderweb” of roads built to access the thousands of oil and gas leases in Piceance Basin, the Roan Plateau and Battlement Mesa.
The students, through the John McConnell Math & Science Center of Western Colorado, have also gone on a tour of a drilling rig and spoken with a nuclear industry representative recently. “The whole objective today is to give them a new perspective so they can make their own decisions,” said Teresa Coons, the center’s executive director.
As soon as we leveled out, the Colorado River came into view, a milk-chocolate slush from that height. The snow and trees of Grand Mesa were now at eye-level and the dusty ravines below Mount Garfield stretched toward the city below us. Murmurs of “awesome” came through the headphones from the students in the backseats.
Further on, we passed the foothills south of Palisade, leading up to Grand Mesa — Grand Junction’s watershed. Gordon pointed out that oil and gas drilling had been proposed there, but local officials had stopped the proposals after their importance as watershed was demonstrated, in part due to a flight over the area.
“We’re definitely not against drilling,” Gordon said. “We need oil to fly this plane and natural gas to heat our homes, so we’re about a balanced approach. We just believe drilling can and should be done responsibly.”
His contention is that the drilling occurring east and north of Grand Junction is happening too fast and too carelessly. A main frustration is that companies “are taking advantage of a climate where they can open up a lot more lands to drilling just to ensure future access to those leases.”
Companies, he said, will lose their leases if they do not develop them in a certain period of time, leading to an area overrun with small, underutilized drill pads, each with its own roads.
“For me, we already know about the wells but you don’t always remember that there has to be some way to get out to them, so then you have this spiderweb of roads,” said Coons, back on the ground post-flight.
That spiderweb was unmissable once we flew past Palisade. “Just follow those roads and you’ll see a little pad,” Gordon said. “Whenever you see a road, it usually ends in a well pad. This drilling happens throughout the Rocky Mountains. I can’t fly 30 minutes in any direction without seeing this,” he said.
Connie Reust, 17, a junior at R5 High School, compared some of the roads and pads to scars. “There is a lot of difference between the drilling pads and the regular land,” she said back at the WestStar Aviation terminal later. She would like to see reduced impact through smaller, cleaner operations in the future.
Reust said she has lived here her whole life, but that examining the area from the air was “really cool.”
At Battlement Mesa, we turned around, taking a bumpier route above some of the canyons north of I-70. The distant, snow-covered San Juans and red cliffs of Colorado National Monument contrasted with the flat, brown valley.
“You guys live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I hope this gave you an idea of the landscape around you,” Gordon said as we approached the runway.