First-Hand Look Shows Drilling Impacts Are Minimal

Published March 1, 2009

Most of the nation’s oil and natural gas reserves are under federal and state lands, and whether these government properties should be used for recovery of precious natural resources is a topic of intense political debate.

To gather more first-hand information on the environmental tradeoffs, I spent two days in November crisscrossing the Roan Plateau of northwestern Colorado, northeastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming.

I was very surprised by what I observed.

High Desert Landscape

Oil and natural gas in the Roan Plateau are as concentrated as anywhere else in the lower 48 states. While natural resource recovery is allowed in some places in the region, various government restrictions significantly limit the amount of land available for resource recovery.

The Roan Plateau is “high desert.” Most of the region receives less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. The northwest Colorado portion receives between 10 and 15 inches of precipitation per year, giving it just a little more plant and animal life.

I spent most of my time exploring the northwest Colorado portion of the Roan Plateau, which according to most accounts has the most natural beauty in the region, so I could see first-hand the environmental impacts of natural resource recovery.

Limited Impact

Turning off Colorado State Road 64 onto Rio Blanco County Road 142, I came across an oil and natural gas production field operated by Encana Oil & Gas, Inc. The landscape was unremarkable. Hills, dirt, and vegetation all were in the same dull, muted shade of brown. The photo in Figure 1 was taken as I entered the production field.

When I took that picture, I did not even notice one of the most significant structural facilities in the entire field, even though it appears in my photo—above the “E” on the sign, at the base of the hill. All wellheads and facilities are painted a dull shade of brown to blend in with the background, and even the tallest structures are no more than roughly 20 feet high. Wellheads and structures are typically located at least a hundred yards from one another, preserving the sense of openness.

Wildlife Not Bothered

While I was taking pictures of the Encana field, an area resident drove by in a pickup truck. I asked him if he had ever noticed the facilities having any negative impacts on wildlife.

“Impact, yes,” he said. “Negative impact, no. During the winter, the mule deer come down from the hilltops to get warm. They use what few large structures they can find as windbreaks. They huddle up behind them to stay warm during the coldest weather.”

Too Small to Notice

There were some scattered facilities like the one in Figure 2, but most of the impact consisted of small wellhead pipes almost too small to notice.

Figure 3 shows a typical natural gas wellhead just a few miles from the Encana field. I drove past it three times before spotting it.

All in all, my visit to the oil and natural gas production fields was a revelation. I was amazed at how little environmental impact the natural resource recovery had. Far from despoiling the environment, I found it to be quite unobtrusive. I only wish more people could see this for themselves.

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