A First-Hand View of Oil Shale Country

Published February 1, 2009

Energy experts report there is so much recoverable oil locked in shale under the high desert of northeast Utah, southwest Wyoming, and northwest Colorado that it could replace all of America’s oil imports for the next 500 years.

Roughly 90 percent of this oil shale sits on federal government land where a congressional moratorium on oil shale recovery had prevented the American people from utilizing these vast energy reserves.

Democrats in Congress and President-elect Barack Obama are considering reinstating the moratorium, which expired in October 2008.

Protecting Special Lands

The potential economic benefits of oil shale to the nation and to Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in particular are staggering. U.S. oil shale reserves are greater than the combined oil reserves in all of Saudi Arabia.

But environmental activist groups say the oil shale region is so pristine and stunning in its beauty we must forego the economic benefits of oil shale production.

While most Americans agree certain lands are so unique, beautiful, or important to the sustenance of vital ecosystems that they should be protected from natural resource recovery, only a very few extremists argue the federal government should allow no energy production on any federal government lands. Since the federal government owns 65 percent of all land west of Denver, elected officials must determine which lands have such exceptional qualities as to deserve a complete moratorium on natural resource development.

Important in this debate is the extent to which modern technology minimizes the environmental impact of natural resource recovery. In contrast to the technology of yesteryear, engineers today can extract the valuable oil from shale through underground heating processes that do not use up water resources, cause minimal environmental damage during the extraction process, and leave the post-production landscape nearly identical to its condition before the oil extraction.

Semi-Barren High Desert

While certain environmental activist groups have described the tri-state oil shale region, sitting in the Roan Plateau, as being so spectacular in its beauty as to require absolute federal protection, industry groups sometimes refer to the oil shale region as a desolate moonscape.

To sort out these competing claims, I spent two days driving through the high-desert oil shale region to learn the truth for myself. I was very surprised at what I observed.

The region where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming meet is classified as high desert for a reason: Most of it receives less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. The northwestern Colorado component receives between 10 and 15 inches of precipitation per year, which brings with it just a little more plant and animal life and, by most counts, more natural beauty than the rest of the region.

Giving the environmental activist groups the benefit of the doubt, I spent most of my time exploring the northwestern Colorado portion of the oil shale region to see if the land carried that extra special beauty that warranted exceptional federal protection.

The major roads in the region are state highways and county roads that run alongside the few streams and rivers. These watercourses have carved out the more-appealing landscapes, and their life-giving water allows for a much-higher concentration of life than in the areas away from the major roads. Even here, however, as the accompanying photographs show, the region is still high desert consisting of various shades of brown.

Desolate Scrub Area

Off the major roads and away from the few streams and rivers, the landscape is desolate. The term “moonscape” is too strong a term to describe the region, but only the most partisan advocate would call it exceptional in its beauty.

My photographs show the area is dominated by brown scrub brush and scrub grass and is best described as semi-barren desert. Picture the Mojave Desert outside of Las Vegas, with just a tad more vegetation.

The vastness of this semi-barren desert is difficult to ignore after two days spent driving the web of state highways, county roads, and dirt trails of the region. In hour after hour of exploring the land, the only animal one sees is an occasional lonely bird.

Near Bottom of List

I have yet to see any part of this country that is devoid of natural beauty. From the sand dunes of Death Valley to the swamplands of the Everglades and everything in between, the United States is blessed with a great variety of intrinsic natural beauty.

However, to exist as a civilization instead of scattered clans of wandering cavemen, we need to develop some of our natural resources. When compiling a priority list of national lands most deserving of protection from natural resource development, it is hard to imagine many objective people ranking the brown, semi-barren desert sitting atop our nation’s incredibly rich oil shale reserves far from the bottom of the list.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.