Sentinel series dubs Energy Alley along I-70 western Colorado’s ‘Road to riches’

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on Sunday did a good job of painting the big picture in terms of the massive scale of energy resources under the arid ground of western Colorado and eastern Utah in an area dubbed “Energy Alley.”

The 150-mile stretch of Interstate 70 between Rifle, Colo., and Green River, Utah, sits atop the world’s largest known reserves of oil shale, not to mention huge quantities of natural gas and significant supplies of uranium. Under the headline “Road to riches,” the Sentinel’s Gary Harmon explores how developers and local governments along the alley are looking to cash in on the nation’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for new energy sources.

oil shale

But the series takes a much more statistical, business-oriented approach to the topic – to be expected from the leading news source in the conservative stronghold of Mesa County – and gives little play to environmental concerns likely to shape the debate over how best to exploit the vast mineral resources in Energy Alley.

Water is the great limiting factor when it comes to oil shale development, an industry that has yet to prove its commercial viability. And water, or the lack thereof, will also play a huge role in any revival of the nation’s nuclear power industry – long dormant but still supplying 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs.

A proposed nuclear power plant near Green River is currently working to sew up its water rights, while uranium mining and milling is seen as a panacea by some in economically depressed sections of western Colorado. Environmentalists, however, are working hard to remind Colorado residents of uranium’s toxic history in the state.

The Sentinel points out two of the top uranium sources globally have stopped production recently, with the Cigar Lake Mine in Canada flooding and the Olympic Dam Mine in Australia shut down because of an accident. Supply factors and growing support for nuclear as a virtually carbon-free power source have energy companies speculating on a uranium boom in the United States that some experts, according to the paper, aren’t sure will materialize.

“The bigger issue for uranium is: Will a significant portion of the world choose nuclear power as the clean fuel of choice?” Dr. Rod Eggert, director of the division of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines, told the Sentinel. “Right now, there’s a lot of speculation, but exactly how large demand will grow, no one knows.”

As for oil shale, opponents argue it would consume far too much water in the already endangered Colorado River Basin and that the billions of dollars in research and development needed to make it commercially viable would be better spent on proven renewable energy technology.

Still, despite those concerns and the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar putting the brakes on Bush administration policies meant to boost oil shale speculation, many proponents remain convinced the Green River Formation is the future of America’s energy independence.

“The public doesn’t realize what we have here,” Jeff Williams, a Mesa County developer, told the Sentinel. “I’ve had engineers call this the OPEC of the United States.”

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