Monthly Archives: September 2014

Part Three, the Keystone XL Pipeline

Pipeline Construction

Pipeline Construction

When I was growing up in Fruita, Colorado in the 1950’s, the El Paso Natural Gas Company built a 26″ natural gas pipeline from north to south through Western Colorado. In flat country, laying a pipe is fairly straightforward.  To lay a pipeline, dig, lay pipe, weld, wrap, and backfill.  In the Colorado Plateau, the pipeline not only goes from point to point, it goes up and down.

North of Fruita, The line had to go over Douglas Pass. As Colorado passes go, it is no big deal.   Not that high, but near the top there is steep and unstable ground famous for landslides.  The trenchers, welding machines, side-boom tractors handling pipe, and bulldozers; all had to be winched up and down the mountainside.  That is a slow, expensive process. To us in Fruita, it meant that our little town had lots of pipeliners for several weeks.

I mostly saw the pipeliners in Hill’s Cafe, where we often had dinner. The stereotype is that pipeliners are a wild bunch, but we didn’t see it in the cafe.  They were quiet, well-behaved, some prayed before eating, and I liked them.  After all, if you are from Bald Knob, Arkansas, how wild can you be?

That pipeline brings gas from Wyoming, Western Colorado, and Eastern Utah to markets in Texas and the southwest, including California. To my knowledge, it has few problems and quietly does its job.  I think that pipeline has shaped my thinking about pipelines in general.

Today there is much oil and gas development in North Dakota and Alberta. A pipeline network exists to deliver crude oil from there to the refinery complex on the Gulf Coast.  It can’t deliver all that is being produced.  Proposed is a new line, the Keystone XL Pipeline that would run west of the existing line, picking up crude from the Williston Basin in North Dakota as well as the synthetic crude from the Alberta tar sands.

There is a lot of opposition for several reasons. One reason is fear of leaks.  Big spills, contamination, fire, ground water contamination, and all the risks that go with moving lots of nasty stuff that burns.  That Alberta synthetic crude is even nastier than regular crude.  Its carbon footprint is much higher than oil from traditional sources.  It is thick and has to be heated to separate it from the sand.  Most of the crude oil refined here in Denver is tar sand oil.

Oil Car Train

Oil Car Train

The fact is that as long as demand for petroleum products stays high, that Alberta crude will go south, but in rail cars if the pipeline isn’t built.  Here in Denver, there are many tank car trains headed south, competing with coal trains for right of way.   In the upper Midwest there is so much oil traffic that farmers are having difficulty shipping their grain.  Pipelines are safer than rail cars for shipping petroleum.

Some of the opposition is for environmental reasons. Tar sand crude is bad.  Pipelines are bad.  Fossil fuel is bad.  All true.  The solution is not stopping pipelines, but reducing demand.  How to reduce demand?  Make fossil fuels more expensive with higher taxes.  Use the tax money to develop alternative energy and transportation.  Build rails not freeways.  Tell that to Republican legislators.

In the meantime, I think the pipeline is the best alternative until our energy policies change.

Unjustified Causes Part Two: GMO’s

GMO-Dangers-300x215In this part two of my series on spurious causes I address the campaign against genetically modified organisms. The  GMO’s most people are concerned about are in foods.  Despite an overwhelming body of research confirming that GMO’s are safe, there is a huge movement opposing their use in foods.  The illustration at left is an example of truths and falsehoods mixed together.

This brings me back to a common theme underlying many causes: fear. I would like to think most fearmongers are Republicans; they have Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.  In these three popular campaigns, however, many of the adherents are mostly liberal in their thinking.  It just illustrates that I am the only truly rational person around.

So, here we go on applying my advanced reasoning powers to examining how the international agribusiness conspiracy is systematically poisoning the world population, producing hordes of mutants ready to run amok killing the innocent. Oh, wait, I have seen too many zombie movies.

I think Anti-GMO activists have also seen too many Zombie movies as well. There are no studies showing any adverse effects on humans or livestock from GMO’s.   In the U.S., most of the corn, and soybeans produced are GMO varieties.  No ill effects.

The opponents cite studies that have been refuted or make claims with no scientific basis. They are also concerned that there may be problems from GMO’s in the future.  Well, folks, we are in the future.  These products have been around for more than 20 years in many cases.  No zombies yet.

The health food industry has jumped on the no GMO bandwagon in a big way. They accuse big agribusiness of dangerous practices for profit, but they sell No-GMO products with big markups and scared people who have bought into the hype into paying inflated prices.

The justified fear of adverse health effects from pesticides and herbicides in the diet and drinking water has spilled over into the GMO movement. The anti-pesticide movement has strong scientific support.  The anti-GMO movement has none, but the fear spills over.

Marketers are exploiting the fear by putting organic foods and No-GMO foods In the same category. Who loses?  The Whole Foods customer.  The customer is subjected to the classic propaganda technique of the half-truth.  Pesticide residue bad, true;  GMO’s bad, false.  The association is what sticks in people’s minds, scientific fact notwithstanding.  This technique is one the Nazi’s used to justify killing Jews.  Good people were taken in.  Good people are beIng taken in today for profit, not genocide

Three Unjustified Political Causes

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

There are three causes, fracking, GMO’s, and the XL pipeline that to me are spurious. There is a lot of hysteria around the issues with little critical examination taking place.  People seem to be taken in by bad science, bad reporting, and demagoguery.

Fracking is an old technology that expanded when horizontal drilling along with fracking opened up huge amounts of territory to oil and gas extraction. The oil and gas was there all along, geologists knew about it, but it was trapped in what the industry calls tight strata, mostly shale.

Traditionally, oil and gas has come from fairly porous rock that allows the oil and gas to migrate to the wells. Tight strata is not porous, and the oil and gas tends to stay in place.  hydraulic fracturing breaks the rock, allowing the oil and gas to move to the well. Fracking is not new technology.  It was being used around my home town in the 1950’s.  The big change came with horizontal drilling, hugely expanding the amount of rock that can be fractured from one drill hole.

If there is impervious rock above the area being fractured, the only route for the oil and gas to escape is up the drill hole. Done right, the oil and gas go into a pipeline or a tank with no surface contamination.  The problem is that it is often not done right.

BP Spill

BP Spill

It’s been clear for a long time, reinforced by the big BP spill in the gulf, that drilling so often not done right. Oil companies are infamous for lying, cheating, and stealing.  They get away with it in part because nobody knows what they are doing.  Meters are bypassed, mineral rights owners, including the Government, are underpaid, horizontal wells go outside their boundaries, and proper drilling methods are bypassed.

The big BP spill in the gulf happened because a defective blowout preventer was put in service. No one is going to know, right?  It is a mile under water.  We all know and BP is going to owe billions.

The problems we are seeing with fracking, groundwater contamination, flaming water faucets, polluted water dumped into streams, all come from cheating. With fracking, drillers cheat by not properly lining the drill holes.  The correct method is to pump concrete between the side of the hole and the smaller steel casing that carries the oil and gas to the surface.  It requires high pressure pumps and a lot of concrete.  Done right, it works just fine.  But, it is a long way down that hole and you cannot stand beside the wellhead and tell what was done.  What can be done is to sample ground water and air.  If there is contamination, it was not done right.  Incidentally, our old friend Halliburton is the big oil well service company that does much of the well lining.

Until alternate energy is much bigger than it now is, we need oil and gas, and domestic production is preferable to foreign imports. Otherwise, turn off your air conditioning, junk the furnace, and sell the car.  So, let’s regulate.   We need monitoring for contaminants and on-site inspectors.  All that is done in construction, but the oil and gas industry has avoided most oversight.

Fear is the reason for the opposition to fracking. People don’t understand the technology, big oil rigs along subdivisions and water trucks on the highway are imposing.  They see news reports that show flaming faucets

Flaming Faucet

Flaming Faucet

without explaining the cause other than blaming fracking.  Flaming railroad oil train wrecks.  Pipeline leaks in California.  The oil and gas industry has a public relations problem.

The biggest fracking failure was 45 years ago in Western Colorado. The government detonated a 40 kiloton nuclear bomb down a drill hole near Parachute, Colorado.  Lots of natural gas was liberated, but it is radioactive.  People just will not accept radioactive gas coming into their homes.  I think this long ago event is what started fracking fear.

Unless you get around on horseback or bicycle, stay off the power grid and light, heat, and cool your house with renewable energy, you need oil and gas.  With regulation, it can be safe.  We can then put more time and energy into developing clean energy.

Parts two and three will examine GMO food and the XL Pipeline.  Stay tuned.

Pearl Pass Part Two

North Side to Summit

North Side to Summit

In Part 1 I discussed the history of Pearl Pass and my family connection. I also covered the four wheel drive experience travelers have on the pass.  I have been rambling around the Rocky Mountains most of my life.  There is a lot of good country here.  I am fortunate to have spent time in some of the Rockies from New Mexico to Alberta.

Some of the best pieces of mountain country are the Elk Mountains. I have not spent much time there because of Aspen. A Western Colorado native, for many years I harbored a prejudice against ski area development.  Aspen is the ski town that started the Twentieth Century Gold Rush, this time mining tourist pockets.  The place is just too rich for a small town boy.  Over time I lost my bias, but still tended to avoid the Aspen area.  I have never been to the Maroon Bells.

Living along the Front Range influenced not visiting the Roaring Fork Valley as it is a four hour drive to Aspen from Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park and the Collegiate Peaks are a lot closer.  Recapturing my interest in my family history has drawn me to Pearl Pass.  If Grandmother Pearl could drive a wagon over the pass in 1887, I should do it as well.

Pearl Pass has seen no change in the last 130 years. Between Aspen and Ashcroft the road is paved and there is development, but once on the four wheel drive road it is as it was.  It goes between the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness.  Together, they harbor the largest cluster of 14,000 foot high peaks in North America.



That huge area of high mountain wilderness means wild. Pearl Pass is one of the wildest places I have ever visited.  Up high, what you see is almost all above timberline.  To the east, the mountains are granite, what I am familiar with in Colorado.  To the west is sandstone.  Layered sandstone, capped with basalt.

To me, that layered rock seems wild, out of place. It is gray, with a hint of red.  When I see sandstone I expect red or tan.  The view is so striking and beautiful I am at a loss for words.  I have been trying for days to come up with a description that matches what I saw.  The pictures will give you an idea, but cannot portray the impact of so much wild space with little human influence.

One reason for the view is because the Elk Mountains are west of the central Colorado?????????? Mountains and get more moisture. The glacial cirques are huge, creating a series of basins surrounded by many high peaks 13,000- feet or higher.  The pass itself is 12,700 feet high, surpassed by Mosquito Pass for example, but unsurpassed in sheer majesty.

I am now committed to more exploration of the Elk Mountains. There are Taylor and Schofield Passes that are four wheel drive accessible.  A winter drive to the Maroon Bells is on my list.  I may even break down and get out and walk.  My backpacking days are over, but there are lots of day hikes.  Lots of people on the trails, but most of them are nice people.  The high passes are for solitude.

Pearl Pass Part One

Road to Ashcroft

Road to Ashcroft

On Wednesday, September 3, I drove over Pearl Pass.  Pearl is one of those four wheeling trips that have been on my list for a long time.  My grandmother, Pearl Willits Shanks, drove a team and wagon over the pass when the Willits family moved from north Texas to Colorado in 1887.  Pearl was 12 when she drove over the pass.  She may have been a Texas girl before Pearl Pass, but she was a mountain girl after that.

The road was built as a toll road in the early 1880’s from the railhead in Crested Butte to the newly discovered silver mining area in Aspen.  It was in use until the railroads came to Aspen in the late 1880’s.  The main use was hauling coal from mines at Crested Butte to Aspen.

Today the road is much like it was in the nineteenth century.  From the start of the four wheel drive portion until it drops into the valley on the Crested Butte side it has no dirt, just rock.

Pearl Pass

The Bad Ledge

Fist sized rocks, baby head sized rocks, rock ledges, big rocks in narrow places, and big rocks in the middle of the road. One can grow tired of rock.

It is also narrow, made for wagons a long time ago.  There is no room for error. In reading about the pass, most of the reports involving trouble were where a vehicle got too far to the side.  When that happens, there better be good help available, because it is a long way to the bottom if the vehicle rolls over.

I was able to drive over all those rocks with no real damage to my Toyota Tacoma other than losing a mudflap.  The forest ranger had suggested a Jeep Rubicon.  I find my Toyota does just fine, although I may add a limited slip differential someday.

The Road and a View

The Road and a View

At the Summit

At the Summit

This is probably the most difficult road I have driven.  Steep, narrow, and did I mention rocky? I will do it again.  The history is important to me, the story of my family.  I spent the afternoon on that road marveling that a 12 year old girl from flat Texas could marshal the courage to drive a wagon over that hill.

I don’t know how long the entire trip from Crested Butte to Ashcroft, 10 miles from Aspen, took the Willits family.  I do know that they misjudged the time it would take to get over the highest part and did not get off the hill into Ashcroft until 11:00 PM.

That road is scary enough in daylight.  At night?  It is good that horses are better at seeing at night than we are.  Once I got down into the timber on the Crested Butte side, the alternating sunlight and shadow made it hard to see any serious obstacles. I can just imagine what Pearl was feeling.

I have given you some history and road condition information about Pearl Pass.  My next piece will be about the other big attractions.  The Elk Mountains that the pass traverses are some of the most spectacular and geologically unique mountains in Colorado.  Next time.

Four Wheeling for 65 Years

Camping with my Nissan 4x4 in the Maze District

Camping with my Nissan 4×4 in the Maze District

My first four wheeling memory is from deer hunting season somewhere in the early 1950’s. We were staying at a neighbor’s ranch near Douglas Pass with a large party. We went up a creek in a WWII surplus Jeep. There must have been eight or ten people on and in that Jeep. We got up high on a rough road and a front axle broke. I was too young to know much of what was going on, but I did know the Jeep was broken and we were a long way from the ranch.  A couple of the men were pretty handy and managed to pull the broken axle with a Crescent wrench and a screwdriver, all the tools they had. My father was impressed and we made it back to the ranch.

Other four wheeling trips were to what is now Canyonlands National Park. I don’t remember whose Jeep we were in, but we four wheeled over Elephant Hill into Chesler Park. The Elephant Hill road is still open, but Chesler Park was closed to vehicles many years ago. My father didn’t have a four wheel drive in those years, but we went places in our 1953 Chevrolet pickup that are considered four wheel drive only these days. Many of the roads were to fishing areas on Grand Mesa.

1953 Chevy

1953 Chevy

There just were not many four wheel drive vehicles in those days, so people made do. In the Bookcliffs area, famous for slick shale roads, there were many hills with a pile of rocks at the bottom of the grade. People stopped, loaded the rocks into the bed of the two wheel drive pickup for weight, and climbed the hill and went where they wanted to go, and unloaded the rocks on the way out.

WWII and Modern Jeeps

WWII and Modern Jeeps

Army surplus Jeeps became fairly common in the 1950’s, but they were fairly primitive. 35 miles per hour was about what they would do on the highway unless the owner added a Warn overdrive. They also broke a lot. I remember walking home from across the river from Fruita when the steering linkage fell apart on a surplus Jeep.

Later, in the 1970’s, four wheel drive vehicles became more common. New and modernized Jeeps, International Scouts, Broncos, Blazers, and four wheel drive pickups became fairly common. My father had two Scouts, an early Jeep Cherokee; and his first four wheeler, a 50’s Jeep wagon with a Chevy small block V8.

The first Scout got us into trouble on Elephant Hill. We were coming out after dark and as we got to the top of the hill, bouncing over the slickrock, the engine quit. It would not start, so we walked the four miles or so to the Canyonlands Resort. At that time the owner flew tourists over the canyon country, ran the resort, and flew the occasional polygamist away from the law. We waited for him to finish an enormous plate of venison and biscuits, got into his big Ford ¾ ton pickup, and went to the Scout. He towed the Scout about 50 feet and it started. The carburetor float must have stuck and the bouncing knocked it loose.

When I started buying four wheelers I got Japanese pickups. They cost less, are reliable and capable, and after all, a feller needs a truck. I just don’t like buying lots of gas for a truck. My current ride is a 2009 Toyota Tacoma 4 cylinder standard cab. Toyotas have grown, it barely fits in our new 20 foot garage.

My Taco

My Taco

There are two basic types of four wheelers. There are those who four wheel to go to interesting places that require four wheel drive, and those who enjoy the sport of going to difficult places. There is overlap, but those lifted and modified vehicles are for hard core wheeling and showing off. I have a four wheel drive pickup to go places. My Tacoma is stock.

Southeastern Utah is a favorite destination for both types of four wheelers.  The Moab Rally every spring brings hardcore rock crawlers from all over the country.  There is so much to explore that is accessible because the uranium boom of the 1950’s brought about much road building into areas that had been horseback only.

My favorite area is the Maze District in Canyonlands National Park.  70 miles of dirt road to the ranger station, then many more miles of four wheel drive to places like the Doll House, which has access to the Colorado River just below the confluence with the Green.

This summer seems to be devoted to going over passes. I won’t name them all, but the next one is Pearl Pass. My 12 year old grandmother drove a team and wagon over that pass in 1887. I am a bit older and my team is motorized.