Oct 142008
Authors: Madeline Novey

Shell Oil Company granted $950,000 to the Warner College of Natural Resources to continue a decades-long research project that aims to restore plant growth in northwestern Colorado’s Piceance Basin, which was devastated by extensive oil harvesting in the area until the 1970s.

Previous methods of oil extraction were extensively damaging to revegetation processes such as the upturning of topsoil and plant populations to retrieve oil shale.

The goal of the project is to re-grow plant communities that were significantly damaged or, in some cases, eradicated by the extensive oil harvests.

Mark Paschke, an associate professor of reclamation ecology working on the project, said the research efforts, which were “well underway” when they started this early this summer, will provide vital information to affect the process of future oil extraction by major oil companies in the basin area.

“These studies will help us to tell what we need to be concerned about and where we should be spending our money,” Paschke said. “The information that we gather from (the research) will be very important in letting (the oil companies) know how to deal with those disturbances caused by extraction.”

While oil companies have developed advanced, less-invasive ways of extracting oil from the shale, project officials said the new environmental threat is the construction of roads and pipelines that will require the removal of soil and vegetation in the area.

In the 1970s, oil companies were interested in drilling in the basin, which is one of the largest, untapped oil reserves in the world that boasts an abundance of oil shale.

CSU scientists at the time believed that the extraction methods used to retrieve the oil shale – a sedimentary rock that contains materials that, when heated at extreme temperatures, are released as liquid oil – were too invasive and damaging to the plant-life established in the area.

The scientists recommended that the companies postpone physical extraction until the effects of the invasive methods on the natural environment could be researched and analyzed.

Now, several decades later, a team of CSU professors, undergraduates, graduates and researchers picked up the tools and went back to the basin to evaluate the long-term results of the previous research project and continue to develop new and more successful revegetation methods in an effort to reclaim the land.

The research started in 1976 when scientists simulated severe extractions, upturned topsoil and removed whole sagebrush steppe communities – the most common native plant found in the basin area. After the extractions, scientists experimented with twelve plant re-growth methods, which officials referred to as revegetation, including the variance of soil compositions, seed placements and fertilization.

Where the 1976 project focused on 12 studies, university researchers focused the current project on three distinct studies that will look at a multitude of revegetation methods, including topsoil treatment, fertilization mixtures and seed-mix combinations.

Students working on the project said they were concerned by the effects of extensive industry development of natural lands and worked on the project to help reverse those effects and restore the land.

“I grew up on the western slope, and I’ve watched (the basin area) be developed pad after pad after pad,” said Lilly Hines, a senior rangeland ecology and restoration major. “It’s very sad to know that these places – the natural areas that we’ve just learned so much from – are going to be wiped out and developed.”

Paschke said that ultimately, the team is interested in restoring the Piceance Basin wildlife habitat, which would mean returning the area – the plants and animal communities – to its previous healthy state.

Senior Reporter Madeline Novey can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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