Road of riches
Story by GARY HARMON
The stretch of rolling, sagebrush-plugged adobe and rock stretching from Green River, Utah, to Rifle doesn’t look like a vast storehouse of energy.
Appearances, however, are deceiving.
In fact, the stretch along the cliffs across two states is Energy Alley, a run along Interstate 70 that could be the most important 150 miles in America, extending as it does from the uranium-rich lands of western Colorado and eastern Utah to the steep oil shale escarpments near Rifle.
Beneath the rugged, arid surface known best to pronghorn, prairie dogs, cactus and, where it’s most verdant, scrubby sagebrush, piñon and juniper, lies an unparalleled range of fuels and minerals.
“I don’t know of anywhere you could find those things together in the world,” Colorado State Geologist Vince Matthews said.
There is no resource on the planet to match that of the kerogen tightly bound
to the marlstone of the Green River Formation that runs deep below the surface of western Colorado and eastern Utah and that outcrops near Rifle.
Once freed from its rocky jail by heat, the kerogen of oil shale in western Colorado could provide the equivalent of 1.5 trillion barrels of oil.
The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre in London in 2005 estimated that 944 billion barrels by then had been drawn from the earth since the dawn of commercial drilling.
A tantalizing treasure and a ridiculously difficult resource to unlock, oil shale is the largest, but not the only energy fuel trapped in Energy Alley.
The tightly compressed sands deep below the surface of western Colorado’s Piceance Basin hold about 41 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Production from the basin now provides for 3 percent of the 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas used yearly in the United States, said R.T. Dukes, lead analyst of Rocky Mountain upstream research for Houston-based Wood McKenzie Research and Consulting.
Man is nibbling away at the region’s coal stores with mines in eastern Utah and in Mesa and Delta counties, but the vast portion of the coal of what is known as the Uinta Coal Region remains deep below the muddy brown surface of arid western Colorado, beyond the reach of even the most advanced energy-harvesting technology.
The Colorado River as it passes through the Grand Valley bisects the Uinta coal region, a giant resource estimated to contain 23 billion tons.
Most of that coal is buried too deep to reach by any current methods, leaving about 11 billion tons believed to be recoverable, said Christopher Carroll, coal geologist for the Colorado Geological Survey.
The United States in 2008 used 1.2 billion tons of coal, and though consumption levels slipped slightly to increased use of natural gas, coal still enjoys price-stability advantages over natural gas.
The industry also can double up by using mines for carbon-sequestration projects, Carroll said.
Though coal, which generates more than half the nation’s electricity, is at the center of debate over pollution and greenhouse gases, it remains an important resource, said Dr. Rod Eggert, director of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines.
“Coal is going to be part of the mix for a long while,” Eggert said.
One key to improving the safety and profitability of coal mines is the handling of methane, a gas that can asphyxiate miners as well as ignite and explode.
Colorado coal mines and environmental groups are working to capture the estimated 5.5 trillion cubic feet of methane trapped in the region’s coal seams, boosting their bottom line and increasing safety for the miners while preventing the gas from reaching the atmosphere.
The Nuclear Age began on lands now traversed by Energy Alley, which runs along the stark landform known in Utah as the Book Cliffs and Colorado as the Bookcliffs.
Carnotite unearthed in the West End of Montrose County and eastern Utah was milled in Grand Junction and small towns throughout the region.
Some of it found its way to Los Alamos, N.M., and presumably into Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After flatlining for decades after the Three Mile Island incident, the uranium industry blipped back to life in the past decade, then seemed to slip back into dormancy.
That’s unlikely to last, said Jim Burnell, senior minerals geologist for the Colorado Geological Survey.
“The world is planning to use a lot more uranium,” and two of the major international sources, the Cigar Lake and Olympic Dam mines, in Saskatchewan and Australia, are off line until at least 2011 and possibly indefinitely.
Twenty percent of the nation’s electricity is generated with nuclear power, much of it now with demilitarized uranium.
Once that supply runs out, utilities from around the United States and the world will have to find new sources to fuel their reactors.
How much uranium is buried beneath the sandstones of the canyon country is a question awaiting an answer, but the states of Colorado, Utah and Arizona are ranked third in the nation collectively, behind Wyoming and New Mexico, with the nation’s largest known uranium reserves.
The treasure of Energy Alley isn’t just hidden beneath the rock and clay on the surface.
Grand Valley institutions such as Mesa State College are taking advantage of the fact the region basks 300 days a year in sunshine to generate electricity from solar energy.
An electricity utility and a water supplier both are looking to generate electricity from water as it drops from one level to another.
Homeowners and, again, Mesa State, are trying to limit energy costs by tapping the warmth of the earth to heat water they use to cool and heat buildings.
The range of fuels in Energy Alley covers a broad variety of needs, from generation of electricity using coal, uranium and natural gas.
Some, notably Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, have floated the notion that natural gas would make a good domestic substitute for gasoline, making it a reliable transportation fuel, if not one capable of supplying the horsepower and mileage of gasoline.
Kerogen, the stuff boiled out of oil shale, is an excellent transportation fuel, good enough to fuel jets, tractor-trailers and the family car.
“The public doesn’t realize what we have here,” said Jeff Williams, a Mesa County developer. “I’ve had engineers call this the OPEC of the United States.”