As the California Zephyr climbs slowly into the Rockies, my fellow train passengers in the observation carriage stare in silence through the enormous windows, as we pass hundreds of miles of narrow gorges, red rock cliffs and frozen waterfalls. Coyotes run through the snow as the train approaches, while studious bald eagles perched above streams ignore us, focusing instead on the fish in the clear water.
As we drop towards Utah the rail line follows the Colorado River, as it widens and gathers pace from various tributaries – it will become a mighty force at the Grand Canyon, before hitting the deserts of the south-west. Here its strength is sucked out of it – not by the scorching sun, but by Las Vegas, Los Angelese, thirsty agro-businesses and canals. Treaties guaranteeing Mexico a fair portion of the water are ignored, with barely a trickle crossing the border.
Yet here in the mountains of Colorado, the river remains barely more than a stream. Beaver dams span much of it, and hot springs join it – melting the ice briefly. In thin spots, we can climpse the cold water rushing past below.
Just a few miles north of us, Shell is trying to develop Rocky Mountain oil shale – a non-Canadian form of tar sands. Known as “the rock that burns,” oil shale refers to rocks that release liquid petroleum when heated to extreme temperatures. The highly controversial process could deliver immense fuel production, but many are worried about contamination of wild areas, pollution & draining of precious water and climate crisis acceleration.
Shell has already been working at Silt, near Rifle in Colorado since 2006, developing the infrastructure and technology to extract crude. Local farmers are opposing Shell’s operations, worried about the impacts on their livelihoods. A further 1.9 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah & Wyoming are being made available in leases for commercial development by the US Bureau of Land Management.
However, a criminal investigation has been opened into Shell’s obtaining of these three lucrative leases on federal land in Colorado. The Justice Department is investigating whether Bush’s Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton illegally used her position to benefit Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company that later hired her. Shell apparently received “some of the best lands”, was the only company to secure three leases (no other company received more than one) and applied the day after the government released its call for proposals.
In early 2006 the department awarded Shell the three oil shale leases. Norton resigned two months later, saying that she had no job lined up. In December of that year, Shell announced it had hired Norton as in-house counsel to its unconventional fuels division, which includes oil shale. While Interior secretary, she had embraced an industry-friendly approach to environmental regulation that she called “cooperative conservation” and pushed the department to open more public land for energy production. Norton also backed commercial development of the oil shale reserves buried in the rocks of the Mountain West.
Each leases granted access to up to 160 acres of federal land apiece to develop shale programs — with an option to increase that to 5,000 acres once a technique proved commercially viable. On average, each of those 5,000-acre lease tracts holds an estimated $700-billion worth of recoverable oil (at a $70-per-barrel price), according to James T. Bartis, a shale expert at Rand Corporation. Shell has estimated the costs of recovering the oil at (an unrealistically low) $30 per barrel (to persuade its investors). In theory, this could leave Shell with a potential profit of about $1 trillion after royalties if all the oil is extracted.