Land & Ecology
New Ways to Count Coup
There are no more unloved places in the American West, and all proposed sites for pits or well pads and their support infrastructure are likely to provoke spirited debate about the consequences they carry for the people, wildlife, plant life, and landscapes of the Piceance Basin.
Surface mining and retorting methods generate daunting and distasteful environmental challenges. The disposal of processed shale rock, in particular, presents problems for the reclamation of surface mines. Once the fuel has been removed, the crushed rock has expanded in volume, resists revegetation, and poses a threat to groundwater through toxic leaching. In situ extraction promises to be much less disruptive to the land surface than traditional surface or underground mining, although little is known about the prospects or challenges of reclaiming an in situ site.
Either method of oil shale extraction will require a significant buildup of infrastructure and the long-term withdrawal of lease sites from current uses. In addition to well pads, in situ operations will need support infrastructure such as roads, pipelines, processing facilities, water storage and supply facilities, power supply and transmission systems, hazardous materials handling facilities, construction staging areas, man camps, and the other trappings of energy development.
Furthermore, some in situ processes currently in development may require dramatically more power than traditional mining operations in order to heat the shale underground over time, and no one is sure yet how many power plants such operations might need, where they might be located, or whether they will be coal-fired or rely on alternatives such as solar or wind power (both potentially viable options on the Western Slope, raising the tantalizing possibility that the companies could work at developing two new energy sources at once). Finally, after tabulating all of the effort and energy required to extract oil from the rock, no one is certain what the net energy gain will be.
Coming Into Crowded Country
Whatever facilities are required, they will be shoehorned into in already well-occupied country. Wild horses, mountain lions, and black bears roam the landscape overlying the oil shale deposits, which currently hosts a variety of human uses as well, including hiking, hunting, fishing, sheep and cattle grazing, and oil and gas drilling. The region is home to large herds of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope that draw 28,000 hunters annually, along with increasing numbers of outdoor recreation enthusiasts armed only with cameras. The Piceance Basin contains a diverse ecosystem that encompasses a variety of distinct habitats and provides a home to a wide assortment of plant and animal species, including several that are at risk and protected to varying degrees:
- Bald eagle (bird, threatened)
- Sage grouse (bird, candidate for listing)
- Colorado pikeminnow (fish, endangered)
- Boreal toad (amphibian, candidate for listing)
- Dudley Bluffs bladderpod and twinpod (plants, threatened)
- Parachute beardtongue (also called Parachute penstemon, plant, candidate for listing)
Overall, the various federal and state agencies charged with managing the ecological health of Shale Country list 210 species as sensitive, threatened, endangered, or otherwise protected by the federal and state governments. The plant species are particularly at risk from oil shale development because much of their habitat is found on what the BLM has categorized as "geologically prospective" land. The Dudley Bluffs twinpod, for instance, is a small perennial named for its heart-shaped fruits that grows in only a dozen places in the world, and all of them sit above oil shale deposits in Rio Blanco County.42
Land Wars: Ecosystems Under Siege
If operators move into the remote expanses of the Piceance, they will be traversing through Pinon-Juniper Woodlands and Sagebrush Steppe, two distinct ecosystems found in Shale Country. The Pinon-Juniper Woodlands may provide a home for more bird species than any other habitat on the Colorado Plateau, but scientists know little about the impact of human activity on this ecosystem. The Sagebrush Steppe, on the other hand, we know to be an ecosystem in trouble. An arid landscape of crusty earth, dotted by shrubby big sage plants and native perennial bunchgrasses, which stretches across eye-straining expanses of western scenery, Sagebrush Steppe is the dominant lowland plant community in the Intermountain West.
Once nearly ubiquitous throughout the Great Basin, the sagebrush ecosystem is now threatened by the spread of an exotic annual species called cheatgrass. Cheatgrass grows quickly in sagebrush country and provides fuel for fires that burn with more frequency and greater intensity than in the past. Unaccostomed to fire, sagebrush plants are killed completely by it and can take centuries to reestablish, clearing the way for more cheatgrass and the repetition of the cycle across more and more acreage. As a result, millions of acres of former sagebrush country are now virtual monocultures of cheatgrass, and thus a very poor habitat for native species.43
Cheatgrass is not the only destructive invasive species threatening Shale Country. Tamarisk trees (also known as saltcedar) line waterways and drink more than their share. Oxeye daisies virtually pave over once-diverse meadows. Poisonous black henbane waits for unwitting victims. Russian olive, leafy spurge, yellow starthistle, and a host of other wonderfully named but terribly destructive noxious weeds are encroaching on native habitats throughout Shale Country. (For a full overview of the invasive plants threatening Shale Country ecosystems, check the state noxious weed lists for Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.) Once these invasive plants have been introduced into an ecosystem, long-term biocontrol measures, including the uncomfortable prospect of introducing of other nonnative competitors, are often the only strategy for effectively controlling them.
But natural species are pretty good competitors when given a fair chance, and a healthy native plant community left undisturbed can usually hold its own against intruders. Invasive species usually require help to gain a successful foothold, and humans (and their livestock) are often their unwitting assistants. Every time indigenous ecosystems are disrupted - every time a road is built or a development goes in or a pasture is overgrazed - it creates a chink in the natural armor, a vulnerable place that can be assailed by nonnatives, and the problem grows. "Build a road and weeds are sure to follow," Colorado State Weed Coordinator Kelly Uhing recently explained, "unless you have a good plan to prevent that from happening."44
Even with good plans in place to limit impacts, oil shale operations will encroach on the habitat of a number of native species and expand the human/wildlife zone of conflict both directly and indirectly. Equipment brought from other sites may carry with it destructive nonnative species like cheatgrass. Roads and foot trails will break up the fragile microbiotic crust, the thick organic layer of "desert pavement" that stabilizes and increases the fertility of the soil in this sparse and windswept landscape, creating vulnerable places for invasive species to establish themselves. Well pads and facilities will displace the dwindling sagebrush.
Habitat loss and the creation of larger production sites and corridors will disrupt wildlife migration patterns. The noise from compressors may inhibit the reproductive success of birds nesting in nearby pinon and juniper trees. The man camps set up to house workers near operations in an effort to reduce the stress on area communities and roads may become magnets for black bears hoping to score an easy meal - a dangerous situation for humans and often a fatal one for bears, which must be killed if they persist.
Indirectly, as leasing closes off portions of the public lands, the increased population brought to the area by development will intensify the use of those lands that remain open. Energy companies and BLM managers will need to carefully consider the impact (and legal ramifications) that even minimal destruction of habitat might have and develop a coordinated strategy to manage and minimize impacts on plants and wildlife.
Balancing Bulls With Booms
So what are we to do? Should we assign an economic value to plants, fish, and all of the other members of an ecosystem, measure their worth against our need for oil, and live with the consequences of choosing either environmental preservation or energy development?
Quantifying the value of preserving a certain species or a specific place is, at best, an imprecise enterprise and, at worst, downright quixotic. In contrast, calculating the monetary worth of a commodity like the oil that might be extracted from the Piceance Basin is a comparatively straightforward undertaking. Furthermore, it can be difficult to articulate what benefit protecting a species like the Colorado pikeminnow or the Parachute beardtongue imparts to people on the Western Slope, much less those in Boston or Bogota or Beijing. But it takes only the turn of a car key to appreciate the benefits of plentiful oil.
In the past, when American society has debated the inherent value of preserving an intact and undisturbed environment in contrast to the measurable value of developing natural resources, the benefits of development have traditionally triumphed. Fortunately, energy development in Shale Country does not necessarily present us with this type of either/or framework (though the tenor of contemporary political and environmental debates may suggest otherwise).
Groups like the Nature Conservancy believe that there is a way to have our cake and eat it too - or to have our Dudley Bluffs twinpod and the gas to drive out and see it too - if development proceeds with deliberation and a commitment to balancing the value of developing resources against the significant inherent values these ecosystems possess in their undisturbed state. Allowing that our modern standard of living requires the development of some natural resources, these pragmatic environmental advocates work to identify and protect crucial areas that will permanently ensure the area's biodiversity without putting every acre off limits.45
The Nature Conservancy is part of a diverse and often disconnected collection of groups and individuals concerned about the environmental impact of oil shale development. In Shale Country, the opposition to energy development cannot simply be written off as agitation by overwrought or elitist armchair environmentalists. The Western Slope's breathtaking scenery and magnificent wildlife attract tourism that amounts to a significant economic driver for local communities - greater in the long term than energy development, by some estimates. The concerns of the tourist industry are reconfiguring traditional opponents and allies in ways that complicate stereotypical notions of what it means to be an environmentalist. Predictable liberal environmental constituencies have been joined by hunters, ranchers, and other close-to-the-land conservatives on the Western Slope (a reliable conservative stronghold since the waning years of the New Deal) to urge cautious and limited energy development.
At the center of these strange but increasingly compatible bedfellows are the outfitters who guide backcountry hunting and packing trips. Like others who earn their living from the land, outfitters often feel the environmental impacts of development through direct economic consequences. The greatest impact comes from roads punched through previously roadless areas, with their rumbling traffic and fringe of nonnative species, which carve artificial boundaries through habitats and displace wildlife. "Roads destroy everything" was the blunt assessment offered by Kurt Schultz of the Colorado Outfitters Association.
The outfitters, like many others who share concerns about oil shale, do not expect to prevent energy development altogether, and they accept that some roads will have to be built and some areas may be unusable for a while. They want to be involved in a discussion with the energy companies over how to proceed in a responsible way that acknowledges and seeks to balance the range of values found between the poles of unhindered development and absolute preservation.
The incentive to strike this balance in the picturesque country of the Western Slope has grown in recent years as guides have discovered a new and growing source of income in nature tourism. For the modern outfitter, counting coup on the screen of a client's digital camera can be more lucrative than traditional trophy hunting. "A lot of our outfitters are finding that there's more money in watching wildlife than shooting it," Mr. Shultz explained. "You can take one hunter out to shoot a bull, and then that bull is gone. Or you can take 10 people out to see that bull and take pictures, and then 10 more people out the next day to see that same bull, and soon you're saying 'Don't shoot that bull!'"46
As the value of such experiences increases, so too does the likelihood of conflict over well pads, roads, and the other aspects of energy development's footprint on the land. It takes only a few small steps to go from "don't shoot that bull!" to "don't put a road through that bull's range!" to "don't put a rig in the background of my photo of that bull!" In areas of energy development, a picture is liable to provoke a thousand words of protest and acrimonious debate. The visual impact created by energy development can stir up great environmental controversies without even mentioning ecological or economic concerns. Simply put, many people - both tourists and residents - do not like to see the machinery of energy development where they expect wide-open Western spaces, and they will fight to protect the scenic integrity that many take to be a key aspect of quality of life.47