Photograph of a pronghorn antelope in the Pinedale Gas Field, Wyoming. The photo shows a pronghorn antelope running through shrubs and grass in the center foreground. In the background, three drilling rigs can be seen. The rigs are out of focus.

Energy in the Rocky Mountains

Simple map showing the Rocky Mountain region of the northwest-central United States.

Page snapshot: Introduction to energy of Rocky Mountain region of the northwest-central United States, including fossil fuels and renewable enery.


Topics covered on this page: Overview; Oil and gas; Coal; Hydroelectricity; Wind energy; Resources.

Credits: Most of the text of this page comes from "Energy in the Northwest Central US" by Carlyn S. Buckler and Robert M. Ross, chapter 7 in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central USedited by Mark D. Lucas, Robert M. Ross, and Andrielle N. Swaby (published in 2015 by the Paleontological Research Institution; currently out of print). The book was adapted for the web by Elizabeth J. Hermsen and Jonathan R. Hendricks in 2022. Changes include formatting and revisions to the text and images. Credits for individual images are given in figure captions.

Updates: Page last updated September 8, 2022.

Image above: A pronghorn antelope in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, Wyoming, 2008. Photo by Theo Stein, USFWS (USFWS Mountain-Prairie on flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Overview

The high topography of the Rocky Mountains provides context both for hydroelectric power and wind energy. The same rugged peaks and valleys that contribute to localized high winds also make large-scale wind energy development difficult. The Rocky Mountains region is also known for coal, oil, and gas, in this case from large freshwater sedimentary deposits in the Greater Green River Basin.


Map of the northwest-central region with state boundaries outlined in black. Major sedimentary basins are shaded medium blue, and major sources of fossil fuels are shaded dark blue. The Williston Basin mainly in western North Dakota and eastern Montana has the Bakken Formation, and the Powder River Basin in eastern Montana and Wyoming contains the Niobrara Formation. Other basins include the Bighorn Basin (Montana, Wyoming), the Greater Green River Basin (southwestern Wyoming), the Hanna Basin (south-central Wyoming), the Denver Basin (Wyoming-Nebraska-South Dakota border region), Salina Basin (central Nebraska), and the Forest City Basin (southeastern Nebraska).

Sedimentary basins containing significant fossil fuel accumulations in the northwest-central U.S. Modified from a map by Wade Greenberg-Brand that was originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central US.

Oil and gas

Petroleum resources are extracted in the Greater Green River Basin. The Greater Green River Basin is itself made up of several smaller basins and arches between them, formed during the Laramide Orogeny from the end of the Cretaceous period into the Eocene. The basin is known for its Eocene-aged surface rocks that contain both mineral and fossil fuel resources, along with its unusually well-preserved terrestrial fossils in the Green River Formation. Fossil fuels, thought to be derived from blue-green algae living in ancient lakes, are found in particularly thick sequences of Eocene oil shale. The Green River Formation hosts the largest known oil shale deposits in the world.

The Wamsutter gas field, occupying a 89-kilometer-long (55-mile-long) portion of Wyoming’s Red Desert, has recently experienced an energy boom.


Map of the northwest-central region with state boundaries outlined in black and petroleum-producing regions shaded in blue. Petroleum occurs in parts of Wyoming, central and eastern Montana, western North Dakota, northwestern South Dakota, and in western Nebraska.

Petroleum-producing regions of the northwest-central U.S. Modified from a map by Wade Greenberg-Brand, adapted from an image by Peter Nester, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central US.


Photograph of drilling rigs in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, Wyoming. The photo shows two drill rigs, one in the foreground, one in the background, with associated equipment. The rigs are on a flat, scrubby landscape. Snow-capped mountains can be seen on the horizon. The sky is overcast.
Aerial photograph of the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, Wyoming. The photo shows a brown landscape with a network of roads and oil well drilling pads. In the foreground at right, a series of square to rectangular waste pits can be seen. The pits are open to the air and hold green, orange, and brown liquids.

Aerial photo of waste pits and drilling infrastrcture in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, Green River Basin, Wyoming, 2008. Photo by Tom Mangelsen, International League of Conservation Photographers (Wyoming: Upper Green River Valley on flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).


Photograph of an excavated area in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field. An enclosed gas flare is in the foreground. It looks like a metal container with a flame inside. In the background, vehicles and other equipment are visible.

Enclosed gas flare burning waste gas in the Pinedale Anticline Natural Gas Field, Green River Basin, Wyoming, 2008. Photo by Tpmark (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image cropped and resized).


Aerial photograph of the Jonah Gas Field in Wyoming. The photo shows a flat, brown landscape with a network of dirt roads that have branches that end in oil well pads, cleared rectangular areas that support drilling and pumping equipment.

Aerial photo of the Jonah Gas Field, Green River Basin, Wyoming, 2006. Photo by Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight (Skytruth on flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image cropped and resized).


Photograph of the Sinclair oil refinery, Sinclair, Wyoming. The photo shows a cluster of structures in a flat field with hills rising in the background. The sky is blue with scattered clouds.

Sinclair oil refinery, Sinclair, Carbon County, Wyoming, 2011. Photo by James St. John (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Coal

The Rock Springs Uplift is the largest arch in the Greater Green River Basin, dividing the basin into the Green River Basin on the west and smaller basins in the east. The Rock Springs uplift contains coal deposits that were first mined as fuel for the Union Pacific Railroad during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and subsequent railroad operations. Conventional oil and gas drilling has also occurred in the basin, in Cretaceous-aged deltaic rocks from the Western Interior Seaway.

The Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming also produce bituminous and subbituminous coal from Cretaceous and Paleocene deposits in the Bighorn Basin. Coal mining in this basin dates back to the 1800s.


Map of the northwest-central region with state boundaries outlined in black. Major coal deposits are indicated by shades of blue. Bituminous coal (light blue) is found in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas. Lignite (dark blue) is found in north-central to south-central Montana. Subbitumious coal (medium blue) is found in Montana, Wyoming, and a very small part of western Nebraska.

Coal-producing regions of the northwest-central U.S. Modified from a map by Wade Greenberg-Brand, adapted from an image by the USGS, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central US.


2-Panel figure showing the Smith Coal mine, where an explosion killed over 70 miles in 1943. Panel 1: Buildings at the abandoned mine. Panel 2: Informational sign about the disaster.

The Smith Mine in Montana was one of many coal mines where a mining disaster occurred during the 20th century in the US. The Smith Mining disaster happened on February 27, 1943, when methane in the mine ignited, causing an explosion. Ultimately, 74 men died from injuries caused by the explosion or suffocation due to toxic gases in the mine. Left: The abandoned mine. Photo by Tumbleweed 1954 (Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, image cropped and resized). Right: Informational sign about the Smith Mine Disaster. Photo by Velela (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Hydroelectricity

Since the Rocky Mountains provide an abundance of water to lower regions in the east and west, hydroelectric power is substantial in this area. The Clark Fork and Kootenai Rivers (tributaries of the Columbia River that flow through Montana and Idaho) are major rivers that provide the potential for much of the Rocky Mountains’ hydropower, which uses the gravitational force of falling or rushing water to rotate turbines that convert the water’s force into energy. The three largest hydropower plants in Montana—Noxon Rapids Dam (580.5 MW), Libby Dam (525 MW), and Hungry Horse Dam (428 MW)—are located along these rivers and their tributaries, helping to make Montana one of the largest producers of hydropower in the US. In Idaho, the Palisades Dam on the Snake River is less than half the size (about 175 MW) of these large dams.


Map of the northwest-central region with state boundaries outlined in black and hydroelectric power plants indicated by blue circles that increase in size based on the capacity of the plant. The largest plants are in northwestern Montana, central North Dakota, and central South Dakota. The largest number of plants is in Idaho.

Location and capacity of hydroelectric plants in the northwest-central region. Map modified by a map by Wade Greenberg-Brand, apapted from image by U.S. Energy Information Administration, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central US.


Aerial photograph of Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana, 1986. The photo shows a concrete dam spanning the river, with a reservoir behind the dam and a river in front of it. On either side of the dam and reservoir are rolling hills covered with conifers.
Photograph of Hungry Horse Dam on the Flathead River in Montana. The photo shows a tall concrete dam. The photo is taken from one side of the dam looking across to the opposite shore. Conifer-covered slopes rise in the distance, presumably next to a reservoir.

Hungry Horse Dam, Flathead River, Montana, 2013. Photo by Tonyglen14 (flickrCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Wind energy

The Rocky Mountains region has some of the highest potential for wind energy in the U.S., though the area’s terrain and lack of infrastructure can make tapping into this resource challenging. Windmills along I-80 in southeast Wyoming near Medicine Bow, where a gap exists in the Rockies, were among the first large-scale wind farms in the U.S. These facilitated high voltage transmission lines along the Interstate. There are a number of locations in southwestern Montana and northwestern Wyoming where valleys are oriented such that winds are funneled relatively consistently through the year; these areas have future potential for expanded wind farms.


Map of the northwest-central region with state boundaries outlined in black and wind energy potential indicated by shades of blue, with white to light blue areas having the lowest potential and dark blue areas having the highest potential. The Great Plains and Central Lowland regions generally have medium to high potential. The highest-potential areas are in parts of the Rocky Mountains, although the mountains also have regions of no potential.

Wind energy potential in the northwest-central U.S. Map modified by a map by Wade Greenberg-Brand, adapted from image by National Renewable Energy Laboratory, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Northwest Central US.


Photograph of a wind farm near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The photo shows large white wind turbines scattered on a flat grassy and shrubby landscape. Low hills rise in the background.

Resources

Resources from the Paleontological Research Institution

[email protected]: Earth Science of the Southwestern U.S.: Energy in the Rocky Mountains (covers the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah): https://earthathome.org/hoe/sw/energy-rm

[email protected]: Earth Science of the Western U.S.: Energy in the Columbia Plateau and Rocky Mountains (covers the Rocky Mountains in Washington): https://earthathome.org/hoe/w/energy-cp-rm/

[email protected]: Introduction to Energy: https://earthathome.org/hoe/energy


Go to the full list of resources about energy in the northwest-central U.S.

Go to the full list of resources about energy