Unocal about to close final chapter on oil shale
Post Independent Staff
PARACHUTE – Dick Brammer has seen oil shale come and seen it go.
The area manager for Unocal’s oil shale operation on the East Fork of Parachute Creek, Brammer was around during what he calls “the mad rush” of the 1970s, overseeing Unocal’s mammoth 70-square-mile oil-shale-production property north of Parachute.
He and Unocal kept the facility operational into the ’80s and early ’90s, when “we stayed and Exxon went home.”
Now he’s essentially the keymaster – the caretaker and guardian – presiding over Unocal’s abandoned facility. He’s the human between the former mining operations and the rest of the world. Surrounded by chain link fence, there’s one way in and one way out of Unocal’s property, and Brammer holds the key.
Brammer opened Unocal’s gate for U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Denver, on Tuesday.
DeGette was in Parachute to lead community leaders and policy makers on a wilderness tour on the Roan Plateau. The group was on its way to review a pristine drainage DeGette has identified to be included in a wilderness bill she’s proposing to protect 59 pristine areas across the state. And although Unocal’s land certainly isn’t considered for protection, a virtually untouched canyon up the East Fork of Parachute Creek above the site is.
Before the visitors passed through the Unocal property Tuesday, Brammer gave the group a history lesson. After leading the group’s four SUVs through the main gate, Brammer drove up a two-lane dirt road – a road that once was 50 feet wide – and got out of his truck. DeGette and about 15 of her guests joined him under the hot July sun.
“Unocal has been interested in Colorado oil shale since the 1920s,” he said. “They’ve been buying property in the state since then. In the ’50s, they put in a plant, but it wasn’t till the ’70s that they produced 5 million barrels of oil out of this facility.”
Five million barrels of oil may sound like a lot, but Brammer said it wasn’t enough to make the numbers work right. Finances closed the plant down.
“We had 6,500 barrels a day – 120 truckloads a day – coming out of here,” he said, “but that didn’t cut it.”
Brammer said the oil shale that came from deep underground and out of the yellow canyon walls was “very clean crude.”
“It was drill and blast,” he said, looking around parallel rows of reclaimed soil stacked from the canyon’s floor halfway up the canyon walls. Looking like giant, long steps of an ancient stadium, there’s 180 acres of steps running up the draw.
Brammer said wildlife has been filtering back into the area since mining operations stopped. There weren’t many elk around during the Unocal’s mining days, but about 250 head browse on the site today.
“They love it,” he said of the wild grasses that now grow on the revegetated rows of reclaimed dirt. “There’s a lot more elk up here now than there were when there were a bunch of miners up here.”
Brammer said the plant closed for good on July 4, 1991. Since then, Brammer has been in charge of dismantling, decommissioning and reclaiming the 10 million tons of raw shale that was left from mining operations.
It wasn’t always pretty. The facility’s holding ponds collected bacteria after standing dormant for so long, and arsenic had to be removed from them by evaporating the ponds down and carting away the material. Other hazardous waste found on site was removed and buried in Utah, Brammer said.
“It’s probably sacrilege for me to say, especially to the people who sign my checks every two weeks, but this is beautiful country,” said Brammer. “To mine it is to degrade a nice area.
“Unless somebody can figure out how to mine less invasively than we did, it’s tough to justify.
“If we could mine here and make it make financial sense, it would certainly help our dependency on foreign oil, but it’s a tough nut to crack without sacrificing an awful lot of property,” Brammer said.
Down the road, American Soda has taken over Unocal’s refinery, an enormous factory-like structure on the banks of Parachute Creek just off Highway 215.
“It was a Cinderella fit when American Soda bought us out,” he said. “They’ve been able to use much of what we left.”
Brammer said at the main site, a few mining structures will remain.
“All the plant processing equipment is out, but at $50 a ton for scrap metal, it’s not economical for us to remove some of these structures.”
Now that reclamation work is almost complete and Unocal is letting its mining permit expire, the property’s future is uncertain. The Nature Conservancy has surveyed the land and looked at the property, and Brammer said gas companies like Williams are “knocking on the door.” But no decisions have been made.
One thing’s for sure. Unocal’s days of mining oil shale are through, at least for now, and at least on this land.
Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518
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