Shell grant to help CSU study for reclaiming energy industry land

A $950,000 grant from Shell will enable Colorado State University researchers to study how best to revegetate lands disturbed by energy development.

The work will take place on one of Shell’s three federal research, development and demonstration oil shale leases in Rio Blanco County. The lessons will be applicable not just to possible commercial oil shale development, but also to the natural gas development frenzy that already is occurring in northwest Colorado.

“I think Shell has really stepped up to the plate here,” said Mark Paschke, a CSU associate professor of restoration ecology and a principal researcher on the project.

The project is somewhat unique in that researchers will be able to revisit plots that CSU studied in the 1970s as a result of U.S. Department of Energy funding. Studying the plots will provide lessons in what works and doesn’t work in the long term.

“Usually when we do a study about revegetation techniques, we only get to study it for three or five years if we’re lucky,” Paschke said.

Shell is experimenting with a process of heating shale underground in order to pump kerogen to the surface. Two other companies also have federal research, development and demonstration leases in northwest Colorado, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expects to issue rules for commercial leasing by year’s end.

Reclamation was one of several concerns about possible oil shale development raised last week by environmentalists and several Democratic politicians from western Colorado. They viewed the Rio Blanco County landscape from a plane flown by a pilot from the nonprofit EcoFlight group, and they worried about pipelines, well pads and roads that already are disrupting wildlife habitat.

Oil shale development could significantly compound that disturbance, and Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt, also a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, fears the region’s arid landscape might never fully recover.

Peter Hart of the Wilderness Workshop said Shell would have to clear land wherever it applied its technology. That’s true, Shell spokesman Tracy Boyd said. Although its process would not be as disruptive as doing open pit mining for oil shale, Shell hopes CSU’s reclamation research can help reduce the environmental impact of its plans.

“This is one of many pieces of the puzzle to make sure that when we do oil shale we do it the right way,” Boyd said.


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