The Roan Plateau is a wild and rugged stretch of western Colorado, where soaring cliffs jut skyward for thousands of feet above the Colorado River valley, cutthroat trout swim in pristine streams, and wildlife roams the box canyons. Generations of Coloradans have prized it as a place to backpack, hunt, and fish. It has been preserved for almost a century, but not for its natural splendor.
For decades, the Roan was a U.S. "naval oil shale reserve"—saved for that day when Americans in war would need to tap its energy. And that day, some say, has come. The battle over drilling the Roan illustrates the trade-offs required to free the United States from dependence on imported, global-warming oil. As we consider President Obama's goals of ending America's reliance on foreign oil, and addressing climate change, this must be said: There will be blood.
There is no cost-free fix. There are always trade-offs.
The costs are visible in the terrain that skirts the Roan Plateau, dotted with so many gas wells that it looks like a pockmarked highway sign riddled by gun-happy marksmen.
Nor is Colorado alone: Other stretches of Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana have been similarly scarred by the Bush administration's feverish efforts to increase gas production. Resistance to unabated energy production helped the Democrats reclaim political strength in the region. The Roan will give us an early sign of just how the Obama administration intends to balance the West's competing interests.
Notably, Interior Secretary and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar stunned everyone by reopening the Bush administration decision to approve drilling on the Roan and a dozen other sensitive Western tracts. The Interior
Department had reaped $113 million—the biggest ever onshore haul in the lower 48—when it auctioned off leases covering 55,000 acres on the Roan. The fate of those leases is now uncertain.
Over time, the Roan wells could provide taxpayers with more than a billion dollars in fees and royalties, and enough gas to heat 4 million homes for two decades. The energy industry is an important employer in Western communities. And natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal and is less dangerous to the climate than oil. And if we fit our automobiles to burn natural gas, as billionaire T. Boone Pickens proposes, we won't have to ship billions of dollars overseas, keeping tyrants in power.
There are other alternatives to imported oil, but they, too, have costs. Al Gore recently told Congress about "concentrating solar thermal," an existing technology. "If we took an area of the southwestern desert 100 miles on a side, that would be enough, in and of itself, to provide 100 percent of the electricity needs for the United States of America in a full year," Gore said.
The senators gushed. And, indeed, it sounded terrific—until one considered how conservationists, sportsmen, defenders of wildlife, American Indians, off-road enthusiasts, and local property owners would react to a federal proposal that 10,000 square miles of the West be converted to a giant, simmering industrial heat sponge with an endless array of mirrors, towers, power plants, and utility lines to capture the solar energy and dole it out.
As a senator, Salazar had urged the Bush administration to tap the Roan Plateau with care. He suggested leasing the land in phases over decades to limit the human footprint; that drilling be restricted to areas that already have roads; that companies use their least damaging techniques; and that wells be banned from the wilder habitats of trout, eagle, and elk. He'll very likely now try to wring these kinds of concessions from the energy industry before allowing the drilling.
We'll save a few barrels of oil at the cost of a piece of our natural heritage. And I won't argue: If Salazar does his job right, our great-grandkids may one day roam a reclaimed Roan. In a thousand little trade-offs like that, we'll try to save the planet. Just don't let them tell you it won't cost you a thing.