Picture of a row of beehive-style coke ovens, Redstone, Colorado. The coke ovens are made of bricks are are dome- or beehive-shaped. Each has an arched opening. A flat dirt road runs along the length of the row of ovens. A mountain rises in the background.

Energy in the Rocky Mountains

Simple map showing the area of the Rocky Mountains province of the southwestern United States.

Page snapshot: Introduction to energy in the Rocky Mountains region of the southwestern United States, including fossil fuels and renewable energy.


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

Credits: Most of the text of this page is derived from "Energy in the Southwestern US" by Carlyn S. Buckler and Robert M. Ross, chapter 6 in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Southwestern USedited by Andrielle N. Swaby, Mark D. Lucas, and Robert M. Ross (published in 2016 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 April 7, 2022.

Image above: Restored coke ovens in the Redstone Coke Oven Historic District, Pitkin County, Colorado, 2011. Coke ovens are used to cook coal, transforming it into coke, which has a higher carbon content. Photo by Jesse Varner (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image cropped).

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 marine and freshwater sedimentary deposits in the Greater Green River Basin.


Black-and-white photo of an open-pit coal mine in Colorado. Coal is exposed in an excavated cliff near the floor of the mine, where a truck is being loaded. At surface level above the pit, a car can be seen.

Open-pit coal mine, Coalmont district, Jackson County, Colorado, 1940. Photo by C.E. Erdmann (USGS).

Oil and gas

Petroleum resources are extracted in the Sand Wash Basin, a southern lobe of the Greater Green River Basin (the bulk of which is located in Wyoming). 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 world's largest known oil shale deposits. The North Park Basin contains Paleozoic and Mesozoic strata, especially deposits laid down by the Western Interior Seaway. Oil and natural gas have long been extracted conventionally at the North and South McCallum oil fields, from the basin's Cretaceous-aged deltaic sandstones. In recent years, unconventional drilling of the late Cretaceous Niobrara Shale has drawn attention to the organic-rich calcareous shale and marl in the North Park and Sand Wash basins.


Map showing the four southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) with sedimentary basin shaded in light blue. Dark blue areas in the basin show extent of oil-and-gas producing formations. Major basins are the Denver (northeastern Colorado), Uinta-Piceance (northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado), Paradox (southern Utah and Colorado), San Juan and Raton (southern Colorado and northern New Mexico), Permian (southeastern New Mexico), and Pedregosa (southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico).
Sedimentary basins of the southwestern U.S. (light blue) and the oil-and-gas-bearing rock units in them (dark blue). Modified from a by Wade Greenberg-Brand, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Southwestern US.

Map showing the four southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) with oil- and gas-producing areas shaded dark blue. Most of these areas are in eastern Utah, western and eastern Colorado, and northwestern and southeastern New Mexico.

Areas of oil and gas production in the southwestern United States. The Great Plains and the Colorado Plateau are both major fuel-producing regions. Map by Andrielle swamby, originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Southwestern US.


Photograph of a drill rig near Coalmont, Colorado. Photo shows a metal tower on the right, a second metal tower on the left, and a tall, thin structure with a flame coming out of the top in the center.

Drill rig and associated equipment near Coalmont, Colorado. The fire is a methane flare, or waste methane being burned, which may be done for safety, logistical, or economic reasons. Photo by Tony Webster (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Hydroelectricity

Since the Rocky Mountains provide an abundance of water to lower areas in the east and west, hydroelectric power is substantial in this area. The Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Gunnison River and the Uncompahgre River, provide the potential for much of the Rocky Mountains' hydropower. Over 20 plants produce more than 300 MW of energy for the region. Two large pumped storage stations, Cabin Creek (324 MW) and Mount Elbert (230 MW), are also located in the Colorado Rockies.


Map showing the four southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) with hydroelectric plants mapped as blue and green circles, with the size of the circle indicating the capacity of the plant. Blue circle are conventional hydroelectricity, green are pumped storage. Few plants are in New Mexico. Large conventional plants are found on the Arizona-Nevada border, the Arizona-Utah border, and in Colorado. Large pumped storage plants are found in southern Arizona and central Colorado.

Hydroelectric power plants in the southwestern U.S. Map modified from a map by Andrielle Swaby (adapted from images by the U.S. Energy Information Administration), originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Southwestern US.


Photograph of a lake with a pumping station next to it. The pumping station is a concrete building with a bank of windows facing the lake. Some equipment sits in the front of the building. Mountain peaks rise in the background.

Mt. Elbert pumped storage facility near Leadville, Colorado. Photo by Andy Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation (public domain).

Wind energy

The Rocky Mountains region has some of the highest potential for wind energy in the US, although the area's terrain and lack of infrastructure has made tapping into this resource challenging. There are currently no large-scale wind power projects in the Rocky Mountains region of the Southwest.


Map showing the four southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) wind power shaded vary intensities of white to dark blue. Much of the area has potential for wind energy production. Wind farm locations are marked with green dots. Wind farms have been built in all four states.

Wind energy potential in the southwest United States, with the locations of wind farms. Figure modified from a figure by Andrielle Swaby (adapted from an image by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), originally published in The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the Southwestern US.

Resources

Resources from the Paleontological Research Institution & partners

Here on Earth: Introduction to Energy: https://earthathome.org/hoe/energy


Go to the full list of resources about energy in the southwestern U.S.

Go to the full list of resources about energy