Drill where appropriate, but be sensitive about it
September 18, 2003
A political battle is heating up over two pieces of public land familiar to many Aspenites. The first, the Roan Plateau, is a towering mesa clearly visible from Interstate 70 near Rifle. The second is the red-rock desert around Moab, a favorite off-season playground for many Aspenites.
We enjoy the beauty of both places through the car window, or on foot, bike, horseback or motorcycle. The canyons and mesas of Garfield County are popular hunting grounds in the fall. They are places of fun, camaraderie and escape.
But these lands have a different kind of value in the form of oil and natural gas deposits. As the Middle East becomes more volatile and this country seeks to bolster its domestic energy supplies, the Roan Plateau and southeastern Utah are emerging as potential sources of fuel.
As users of oil and natural gas, we cannot say with a straight face that all of our favorite mountain and desert playgrounds should be left alone. However, there are places where oil and gas exploration makes sense, and others where it does not.
The Moab area is already home to two national parks and several wilderness study areas; mountain bikers, rafters and campers from all over the world flock to the region for fun and Southwestern scenery. Aside from one consistently producing oil well, the area has not yielded great quantities of fuel.
Given the potential for costly litigation, political histrionics and conflicts between oil takers and fun-seekers, we think it’s a mistake to drill the Goldbar and Big Flat areas near Moab or Lockhart Basin and Canyon Rims to the south. It’s too much disruption for too little return.
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On the other hand, the shale deposits in and around the Roan Plateau have already proved rich with natural gas, and while the area certainly has wilderness value, drilling is a well-established use there. Politically and practically, it’s unlikely that the entire mesa will earn the wilderness designation some state residents pine for.
That said, we don’t believe energy companies should be allowed to convert this unique and striking landmass into a sprawling city of drilling rigs. Oil and gas companies have a proven record of being lousy neighbors with dubious environmental records.
Recognizing the plateau’s unique ecology, environmentalists have recommended that directional drilling techniques be used to access the deposits from the base of the plateau and spare the mesa top. This is more expensive but, we believe, suitable for this sensitive area.
Assuming the Bureau of Land Management allows some drilling on the plateau, it should protect the most ecologically sensitive areas and require that drillers be held to the highest environmental standards in the places they’re allowed to go.
Western Colorado has long been used and abused before for its subsurface riches. In the 21st century, we can and must do better.