Rifle residents learn the drill
Shell oil executive Rich Hansen paused when asked whether his company might employ “hundreds” of local people if its experimental oil shale extraction process proves commercially viable.”We don’t know how big is big,” Hansen said during Shell’s open house in Rifle on Saturday. “Right now it’s just a dream. There’s no guarantee it will work.”Shell’s “we don’t yet know” theme was reiterated time after time by company executives and employees at Saturday’s informational meeting.The open house, the last of three held on the Western Slope, drew an estimated 100 to 200 citizens, elected officials (including state senator Jack Taylor), Rifle town staffers, Garfield county representatives and others to the Fireside Inn.Janey Hines Broderick, from the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, noticed the elected officials right off the bat, and said, “It’s nice to know there’s so much interest on their part, they are getting informed. If I want to call Jack Taylor and say I’ve got some issues about oil shale, it’s nice to know he could say `I was there.'”Over the past few months, the Houston based Shell Exploration & Production Company has released more details on its experimental oil shale extraction project in the Piceance Basin northwest of Rifle in Rio Blanco County.Simply put, according to Shell materials and employees, wells are drilled into the oil shale formations, then the shale is heated in the ground and converted to oil and gas, then moved to the surface through conventional means.A photograph of Shell’s Mahogany Research Project shows 10 to 12 conventional oil well pump jacks clustered together on about an acre, with low-lying above-ground pipes and equipment running between them.Len Falson, development manager for the project, said Shell is now buying electricity off the northwest Colorado grid to heat the oil shale. “It’s pretty intensive,” Falson said. If Shell goes into production, “It will probably involve some new power plants in the area.”It’s too early to tell whether Shell would build its own power plants, or how they would be powered. “That’s way out in the future too much to speculate,” Falson said. “But I think for environmental reasons, it’s kind of hard to build coal plants now. If we build our own they would probably be (natural) gas powered.”Falson said “typical” oil field infrastructure would be needed if Shell goes into production.Before production, “There’s a lot more to overcome. That’s why we’re letting folks know we’re a long way from commercial. Every time we do more research we learn a little more, but we’re encouraged. There’s at least two more years of testing,” Falson said.Broderick, from the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which monitors the natural gas industry in Garfield County, spent some time talking with Shell’s Bob Redweik about environmental issues.Shell’s total acreage in the Piceance Basin is 22,000 acres, but the Mahogany Project is only being conducted on a few one-acre parcels, Redweik said. Shell has been working with the Bureau of Land Management, which manages thousands of acres of public lands in northwest Colorado.”We’re trying to manage our property in the same manner the BLM does,” Redweik said. “We do a lot of the same studies the BLM would require on their property.”A chart at the open housed listed baseline studies that Shell has or is conducting, including: plants, wildlife and wild horses, threatened and endangered species, ground water, surface water, aquatic resources, air emissions, meteorology, cultural resources, traffic, surface impacts and site remediation.Some of the baseline studies are available to the public, while others are internal to Shell, Redweik said.Social impacts of the 1982 oil shale bust were played out on national television, then later in everything from foreclosure notices in local newspapers to For Sale signs in front lawns from Parachute to Glenwood Springs.Margaret Long serves on Rifle’s planning and zoning commission, and is also Garfield County social services director. She saw the oil shale bust from Mesa County, and felt the after effects when she started working for Garfield County a few years later.”This (Shell’s) approach appears to be a much slower approach. That makes me comfortable,” Long said.Although Long has seen how energy industry downturns and layoffs can affect communities, she indicated she sees economic advantages if Shell goes into oil shale production.”I’m very much in favor of diversifying our economic base,”Long said. “Absolutely.”On the flip side of the coin, Long said one of her big concerns is child care for energy industry workers. “That’s one of my current, on-going obsessions. When you employ people you create a need for child care. It’s early, but we never want to forget that piece.”Rifle City Manager Selby Myers also remembers the oil shale bust. He’d like for new oil shale development to be “at a pace that doesn’t create the kind of bubble we had in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”Myers sees the benefit of creating local jobs so that residents don’t have to commute to Aspen. “But on the other hand, if people are going to work 12 hour shifts, or 7 or 14 days in a row, they can’t participate in the community, so that’s not a positive.”Shell’s Mahogany Project is located equidistant from Rifle, Meeker and Rangely, and is about 25 to 50 miles northwest of Rifle as the crow flies. Myers listed a lot of things that Rifle has going for it if Shell does start producing oil shale in commercial quantities.”Rifle has the capabilities of responding with housing … schools … a new hospital and ability to expand (it). We’re in a position where we’re going to be expanding our water resources. All of these are things which will be needed for a large population if Shell ever gets to the development stage.”Myers said Shell has initiated talks with the city of Rifle. “They seem to be very open about some of our concerns.”
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