Opening the Book Cliffs

A few dozen million years ago, in the Eocene — not far back, as geology goes — a large lake covered much of what’s now western Colorado and eastern Utah. A lot of organic muck fell to the bottom, and now that muck is oil. Problem is, it’s locked in shale, and extracting it is no bargain… yet.

If and when it ever gets to be a bargain, look to see some of The West’s prettiest landscape ripped up.

Edge-on, the old lake bed presents itself as the Book Cliffs*, which overlook I-70 for a hundred miles. I took some shots of the region when we drove past them last year. And one of those shots now illustrates this post by Brandon Keim in his Wired blog.

[* My geography and my geology were corrected below in the comments by Ron Schott, a genuine geologist. Brandon Keim wrote about oil shales using my photo. There are oil shales, but not in these Book Cliffs deposits, which are older. The oil shales are in strata above the ones exposed here. Apologies for the errors.]

What we’re presented with here is a set of costs that can only be rationalized in terms that regard the extraction of all the world’s oil as an economic necessity — and nothing else.

I hear arguments for mining oil from places like this and a few memorable lines from the Doors’ “When the music’s over” come to mind:

What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the
Side of the dawn and
Tied her with fences and
Dragged her down.

Great song, by the way. Also the one that foreshadowed the demise of Tony Soprano on the penultimate episode of Tony’s show.

Is there foreshadowing here too?


  1. Ron Schott’s avatar

    Sorry Doc, but I’ve gotta correct your geology. The Book Cliffs are Upper Cretaceous in age – your photo illustrates the photogenic Mancos Shale capped by sandstones of the Mesa Verde Group. The big oil shales, however, are upsection by a good ways; up in the Eocene Green River Formation, particularly a layer known as the Mahogany Ledge. No doubt strip mining this would tear up some spectacularly scenic country, but if we’re lucky technology advances will allow us to cook the oil shale in situ and pump the oil out in a less environmentally destructive way. No guarantees that’ll be technically feasible or cost effective any time soon, but it does offer the hope of deriving a valuable resource without necessarily despoiling a wonderful landscape.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Woops! Well Ron, you’re the guy I was hoping would come along and correct me if I’m wrong about any of this. I didn’t realize I’d be so spectacularly off-base this time. Going back and correcting the pix.

  3. Ron Schott’s avatar

    To clarify a bit further – you were absolutely correct to identify your photo as the Book Cliffs, Doc, and the Book Cliffs are Upper Cretaceous Mancos Shale capped by Mesa Verde Group sandstones. It’s just that these are not the Eocene Green River Formation oil shales that are the focus of oil development in the future. The Wired article was just as incorrect in using your photos of the Book Cliffs in place of the Eocene Green River Fm. oil shales.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks again, Ron. I got thrown off a series of times here, mostly by my haste.

    I think this is the last time I’ll post something on geology while not having a) the time, b) books that help, and c) a good-enough connection to do the required research to get my facts straight.

    Now that I’m back home, I’ll go look at my CO and UT geology texts and start straightening stuff out. When I have the time. 🙂

    Meanwhile, I need a strategy for geo-coding my photos on the fly.

  5. Christina’s avatar

    Great pic, Doc! Your posts & pics are always really good, but this one is particularly resonant. Unfortunately, oil isn’t the only problem–there are currently over 80,000 natural gas wells in Colorado alone, and New Mexico/Wyoming are doing just as badly if not worse. All of this is also subject to much less regulation than oil drilling because it’s more under the radar. Recently, it’s been discovered that the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale (which covers most of PA/WV and half of OH/NY) is actually recoverable, so we’re going to start to see a lot of environmental damage in Appalachia, too.

    And the drilling for both oil & gas is damaging to much more than just the beautiful vista: it all too often destroys small towns with the accompanying boom & bust cycles and wreaks havoc on the health and safety of wildlife/people living in the area.

  6. Billy Beck’s avatar

    When I read and think about this post and the comments so far, I cannot help but reflect on a line from a later post here: “Being right is overrated.”

    I beseech you: think that you might be wrong in both posts.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    So help me out, Billy. In what ways am I still wrong? I’m glad to correct anything.

Comments are now closed.