Workshop on the Subsurface in the American West: Applying Historical and Scientific Lessons from Mining to Contemporary Oil and Natural Gas Development 

May 21-23, 2017 

The Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder hosted a two-day interdisciplinary workshop convening researchers and professionals whose work deals with the earth’s subsurface. The workshop explored the material and social impacts of historic Western hardrock and coal mining in order to uncover lessons for the contemporary oil and gas industry. This comparative framework responds to urgent circumstances in the American West today. The recent shift from “boom” to “bust” conditions in unconventional oil and gas development has been accompanied by a corresponding shift from well drilling to well abandonment. In 2015 in Colorado there were 53,000 active oil and gas wells, and an almost equal number of inactive wells, about half of which have been restored/closed. Of the unrestored wells, over 70% have been in that state for more than 5 years (Findley, Murphy Denver Post 2015). A range of stakeholders are presently scrambling to manage this unexpected turn of events. So far, none seem to have turned to history for guidance. And yet the American West holds a century-and-a-half’s worth of relevant scientific and policy lessons with its many abandoned mines. Harvesting these lessons and applying them to the current circumstances of oil and gas production presented an extraordinary opportunity to bring scientists, engineers, historians, economists, and policy scholars into an innovative, dynamic, and consequential conversation.  

Session #1: The Big Historical and Comparative Framework  

An overview of the history and current situation of mining, as well as oil and gas development, that rests on a discussion of the two keystone federal laws--the 1872 Mining Law and the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act--and the 'regulatory exoskeleton' that has been constructed to encase them. The guiding premise is that "the past is a foreign country," and these panelists will serve as "tour guides" leading the workshop participants on a visit to that country. Topics to place in historical perspective will include the comparison of short-term and long-term consequences of extractive industry; the economic prosperity and/or precariousness experienced by communities in proximity to mining and drilling; the global context of these enterprises; changing perceptions of their roles in society and culture; the complicated appraisal of their benefits and costs; and the changing roles of workers in extractive activities.  


  • Patty Limerick, Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder  
  • Tyler Priest, Associate Professor of History and Geography, The University of Iowa 
  • George Vrtis, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Environmental Studies Program, Carleton College  
  • Eric Nystrom, Assistant Professor, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, Arizona State University  

Session #2: Economic, Social, and Political Alterations of Human Communities Proximate to Mining and Drilling  

Panel discussion with mining and oil & gas experts from a range of backgrounds, followed by group discussion and Q&A. Presentations will center on the end of the extractive lifecycle (closure and reclamation) as a focal point to encourage long-term thinking about the community impacts of past, current, and future subsurface development. Panelists and participants will engage with the questions below:   


  • Ginny Brannon, Director of Mining Reclamation and Safety, Colorado Department of Natural Resources  
  • Julia Haggerty, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University 
  • Kathleen Sgamma, President, Western Energy Alliance  
  • Doug Young, Affiliate, Keystone Policy Center  
  • Roger Fragua, President, Cota Holdings  

Session #3: Alterations to the Subsurface from Mineral, Oil and Gas Development  

Presentations on the effects of exploration, extraction, transport and on-site processing of minerals, oil and gas resources on the subsurface by geologists, hydrologists, and engineers. Discussion could cover the following topics. Estimating the risks of pollution from subsurface contaminant transfer to groundwater and surface water and employing precautions such as siting restrictions for mines, drilling, pipelines and storage based on proximity to water supplies, protected habitats, residences, schools; technologies such as blow-out preventers, appropriate drainage and impoundments, pipeline monitoring, and barriers and setbacks to anticipate and minimize those risks. Alteration of sites from residuals such as waste rock and tailing piles, open pits, tailing ponds, waste drilling mud, fracking fluid impoundments. Removal of vegetation increasing erosion and slope stability. Durability of underground structures (tunnels, wells, pipeline and underground storage tanks) over long units of time; atmospheric impacts from dust, fugitive gases and aerosols.  


  • Shemin Ge, Department Chair and Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder  
  • Kirk Nordstrom, Research Hydrologist, National Research Program, United States Geological Survey, Boulder  
  • Matt Silverman, Exploration Manager, Robert L. Bayless, Producer LLC Craig Jones, Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder 
  • JoAnn Silverstein, Professor, Dept. Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder 

Session #4: Site Abandonment, Closure, Restoration, Reclamation, and Post-Closure  

Presentation topics focus on production residuals and post-production impacts of subsurface  mineral and fuel extraction sites: subsurface waste disposal; stability of abandoned or closed  subsurface sites over appropriate time scales; physical, technological and societal approaches to closure, restoration and reclamation; role of economic factors including valuation of  environmental quality; post-closure monitoring requirements; role of science as the basis for  establishing responsibility/liability.   


  • JoAnn Silverstein, Professor, Dept. Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder  
  • Priscilla Provost Nelson, Department Head and Professor, Department of Mining Engineering, Colorado School of Mines  
  • Tanya Gallegos, Research Engineer, United States Geological Survey, Reston 
  • Nick Flores, Professor and Department Chair, Department of Economics, University of Colorado, Boulder  
  • Shemin Ge, Department Chair and Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder  

Session #5: Proposing Principles of Guidance Drawn from the History of Mining and Applied to the Current Situation of Oil and Gas Drilling: Giving Life and Influence to the Workshop Findings  

A final session aimed at synthesizing the understandings achieved at the workshop. Deliberations will draw together insights from both the similarities and differences between mining and oil and gas production in the American West. Discussions will also address the best “Delivery Systems” for getting these ideas out into the world in a clear and down-to-earth manner so that they may be useful to decision-makers and concerned citizens.