February 2012 - The Piceance Basin - Oil Shale Development

Feb 15, 2012

Captain's Log, 1XE, Day 3 of the month of February in the Earth calendar year 2012, and I am reflecting on a series of oil shale aerial tours we did two months ago. Seems like a dream as we flew so many missions that day but what an important flashback - as the BLM just released the draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for oil shale and tar sands with a 90-day public comment period. The PEIS analyzes four primary alternatives that favor continued research and development of oil shale technology, with no commercial leasing yet - a very positive step in the right direction.

Lining up on Runway 26 in Rifle, Colorado, passengers start asking all sorts of questions after reading our EcoFlight information sheet. Some inevitably ask when I got my license and of course my standard answer is that, "It's been 3 months now and things are going well", and the response over the intercom is a cacophony of gasps and groans. But the Captain (me) then announces that all is well, and that I actually have over 10,000 hours of pilot time.


We take off over the solar arrays at the end of the runway: an interesting contrast to the prolific drill pads as we fly up and around the Roan Plateau where much of the controversy over natural gas extraction began 10 years ago; then we thread our way up Parachute Canyon and top off to view the Piceance Basin in all its glory. Check out this night shot taken a number of years' ago before all the additional development. No it's not a city in the middle of a basin it's the infrastructure from oil and gas and oil shale exploration.




EcoFlight has developed an informative aerial tour for oil shale development in this region. Our overflights were professionally facilitated by Colorado Environmental Coalition, in tandem with their on-the-ground briefings for the press, focusing on the challenges presented by oil shale. Passengers included television stations, newspapers and our usual diverse assortment of members of the community that care about the present and future use of our public lands.


On the first flight of the day the Flat Tops wilderness area looms out of the sunrise to the north. This area is home to the biggest elk herd in the U.S.A., a pristine mountain landscape, with lush valleys of aspen and fir trees. This rich wildlife habitat is the summer destination of the elk and mule deer migrations from adjacent low lying areas like the Piceance Basin - the focus of our overflights. The Piceance Basin, a natural wildlife basin, is now home to man camps, designated developments to house the work force, as the demographics created by the boom of newcomers is best handled this way instead of straining an already overloaded infrastructure, and a staggering 1,800 gas wells according to the wildlife expert on board. As we fly over the Shell Mahogany Oil Shale Research plant at the heart of the industrial development, we see why there is not much room left for the wildlife that has traditionally called this place home.


So it is with great pleasure that I report back on this third day of February that the oil shale announcement from the BLM shows a smarter approach to oil shale development in the Piceance and the West. In addition to wildlife habitat concerns we already face a significant water shortage in the West and have no clear answers about how oil shale development would impact our water supply. We need these answers before we give away even more taxpayer land to an industry that has yet to return any revenue or jobs.


We are proud of the terrific team-work displayed by the Conservation Community. And it is wonderful to see a common-sense approach that hopefully will be carried out - common-sense strategies for a sustainable economic environmentally sensitive energy policy.


-Bruce Gordon