RIFLE, Colo. -- The Western Slope's Piceance (pronounced PEE-awnts) Basin is known for its abundance wildlife and also its natural resources. Experts say that the oil shale in the area is some of the richest and thickest in the world. It is estimated that there are eight hundred billion barrels of recoverable oil in the area and up to 1.5 million barrels per acre. For a comparison, the total may be three times as much as exists in the country of Saudi Arabia.
As it stands, the oil is not economically recoverable by current technologies, however. While some oil can be pulled from the shale, the amount of energy and or money that goes into the process does not make it cost-effective.
The potential impacts of the oil shale development are recognized by energy companies and environmental groups alike.
We were invited on a tour of the area by Eco Flight, a non-profit company out of Aspen which specializes in flying people to significant environments so that they may view these areas. Our tour took us across the Roan Plateau and Piceance Basin, already readily used for natural gas extraction.
Some of this area is already being leased to oil shale developers by the government for research, development and demonstration or RD&D purposes. The Bureau of Land Management is currently looking at proposals to lease out more land for RD&D purposes in the Piceance as well.
Eco Flight has teamed up with the Colorado Environmental Coalition to help increase awareness to oil shale development in the area. That is why they are providing air tours.
"It allows politicians, media, concerned citizens to get a real view of the landscape to see how, for example, natural gas and oil shale might relate to wildlife, to watersheds, to communities," says Jane Pargiter.
Many other community members came along for the flights today and some took a moment to share their concerns.
Keith Lambert, former Rifle mayor and current council member says, "what we are concerned about is the roller coaster ride of the energy development as played out in our history." He says he understands what development could mean for jobs and the local economy, he just wants a slow, graduated growth so the community can keep pace.
Gene Byrne is a retired wildlife biologist who worked with what was then the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He says that the Piceance Basin is the largest mule deer habitat in the world. He is concerned about development interrupting migration routes for the deer and elk as well. He says that the natural gas development in the area has removed a lot of habitat already and that it really concerns him what oil shale development could add.
"Whether you support or oppose oil shale development," says Jim Spehar, former Grand Junction mayor, "It's irresponsible not to be planning to deal with the impact if this industry happens. And that's not been a part of the discussion so far in any appreciable matter... And that's what we're worried about."
One of the main players in oil shale development is Shell Oil Company. They have been researching oil shale extraction since 1981 and have been actively leasing land in the area since 1996. They have reached some successes in the developmental process including the "freeze wall" which uses frozen water as a barrier to prevent the heated shale from interacting with surrounding groundwater. The shale must be heated to 650ºF to derive the oil from the rock.
Shell says that they are trying to be as transparent as possible about their research and development. They say they have been working with local agencies to make sure their concerns are addressed.
"That's why we've put a lot of emphasis and research on wildlife issues, on socioeconomic impacts, on getting the technology just right," says Carolyn Tucker, Community Relations for Shell.
"The ideal scenario is that we don't put the cart before the horse," says Petrika Peters of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "And that when we're thinking about developing oil shale, that we make sure that there is a viable technology in place, that we understand what the impacts will be to communities, to wildlife, to water to air, to all of those things."
Both Shell and the concerned interests say want a slow and cautious approach to oil shale development but no one is shying away from its importance. If and when the technology exists to extract this oil, it could totally change the economy and the environment of the Western Slope.