Boom! Bust!

Forty-five years of High Country News boom and bust cover stories.

 

"Street gambling, prostitution and cocaine are available to anyone," bemoans a social worker. The year: 1974. The place: Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Some 3,000 workers had just descended on Rock Springs to construct a huge coal-fired power plant. High Country News's Joan Nice was on the scene, snapping photos of the makeshift worker camps and cataloguing the boom-town carnage: "overloaded sewage system … traffic congestion … new kinds of crime."

High Country News was then less than five years old, and all around its home base in Lander, Wyoming, could be heard the clanging of new industry. It was the 1970s energy crisis: demand for electricity was climbing, U.S. oil and gas production had tapered off, and the Middle East's major oil producers had cut exports. The crisis whiplashed into a frenzied rush for the West's coal, oil, gas and uranium.

Thus began an HCN tradition of covering the West's booms and busts. Since Joan Nice's 1974 cover story, more than a dozen other boom/bust stories have graced the cover of HCN. Jonathan Thompson's cover story in the current March 16 issue, "Lessons from boom and bust in New Mexico," focuses on the most recent binge of oil and gas drilling, asking: What have we learned?

In that spirit, here's a look back at HCN's front-page boom and bust stories over the past 45 years.

Jan. 28, 1977: "Wheatland: the model boom town?"

As the energy boom rippled across the West, some communities were determined to not end up like Rock Springs. That included Wheatland, Wyoming, where a group of utilities, starting in 1974, moved ahead with plans to bring 2,000 workers to town to construct another large coal-fired power plant.

The Wheatland power plant was the first project to fall under Wyoming's 1975 Industrial Siting Act, which was enacted in response to the energy boom. The law requires large industrial projects to assist communities struggling with negative impacts of those projects. In Wheatland, the utilities shelled out $30 million for housing assistance and other services.

Elsewhere, hopes of dodging the boom-town curse fell short. Construction of two giant new natural gas processing plants brought thousands of workers to Evanston, Wyoming, but the industry secured exemptions from Wyoming's Siting Act. The companies volunteered to help soften the impacts, but it wasn't enough. HCN's June 26, 1981 cover story, "The Overthrust moneybelt," begins: "Untreated sewage is overflowing into the Bear River."

In 1982, HCN revisited Wheatland as construction of the power plant was winding down ("The price of prosperity," HCN 5/28/1982). Many residents said the Siting Act had allowed Wheatland to cope rather well with the boom. Still, "only a few shops (were) left open" as the workers left town. In the end, even the best strategy for surviving the boom couldn't stave off the bust.

Dec. 26, 1980: "Jeffrey City: 'I don't know a person in town who isn't thinking of leaving.' "

By the late 1970s the energy frenzy was sputtering, hit by a weakening economy and improved conservation that reduced energy demand. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident — which made the country skittish about nuclear power — and a sharp downturn in uranium prices heaped extra bust on uranium country, which had prospered since World War II.

Jeffrey City, Wyoming was a small town built mostly from scratch to serve the nearby uranium mines. The mining companies had paid for new streets, schools and — at the request of the miners' wives — a swimming pool and tennis court ("Women face boom town isolation," HCN 9/10/1976). But when the uranium bust hit, hundreds of workers were laid off, triggering an exodus.

The bust also rippled through the oil and gas fields, especially in northern Colorado's oil shale country. The federal government had spurred oil companies to extract oil embedded in rock that could be mined from the surface — a laborious process that penciled out only with oil prices high. On May 2, 1982 — "Black Sunday" — falling oil prices triggered the collapse of the oil shale ventures, and overnight more than 2,000 people lost their jobs. HCN's Ed Marston, who had taken the helm of HCN in 1983, surveyed the aftermath of the bust ("Life after oil shale," HCN 4/15/1983).

By 1985, the Uranium Café on the main drag in Grants, New Mexico — where 37 uranium mines and five mills were operating in 1980 — was boarded up ("A New Mexico uranium town wonders how far it will fall," HCN 4/1/1985). The town had once proclaimed itself the "Carrot Capital of the World," and as it became obvious that mining wasn't coming back, some boosters looked to a future of tourism and retirees. One former miner, however, told HCN: "Who wants to come to Grants? Nobody."

July 7, 1997: "While the New West booms, Wyoming mines, drills ... and languishes"

Other busts struck more locally, where communities depended on a single smelter ("Anaconda: The smelter shuts down, and so does the town," HCN 11/14/1980) or mine ("A busted Wyoming mining town remains haunted by 550 lost jobs," HCN 3/18/1985). Meanwhile, Rock Springs — despite the horrors of past booms — welcomed an expansion of a gas processing plant ("The boom is back in Southwestern Wyoming," HCN 2/18/1985).

In a 1997 cover story, Paul Krza reflected on the spasmodic economic history of Rock Springs and other Wyoming towns, and wonders if the state will ever break out of the cycle. The "New West," he observes, is cashing in without drilling or digging things from the earth.

But, of course, the New West isn't immune to boom-bust, either: Las Vegas overextends itself on gambling ("Las Vegas: The boom craps out," HCN 4/6/1992); Santa Fe's rush on high-end chic beings to cannibalize the community ("Lack of enchantment," HCN 2/5/1996)

And in the end, Krza concluded, it might just be in Wyoming's cultural and political DNA to "sit back, depend on minerals and wait for another boom."

Sept. 13, 2004: "When a Boom is a Bust"

That brings us to the current big boom-bust. Rising natural gas prices in the late '90s and early 2000s spurred a new rush of drilling to tap coalbed methane, a form of natural gas that's easily extracted from some coal formations ("Wyoming's powder keg," HCN 11/5/2001). And by the mid-2000s, hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and other new drilling techniques were detonating a drilling frenzy across the West.

In 2004, HCN's Ray Ring found the tiny Wyoming town of Wamsutter —"probably the ugliest town in the West," he wrote — struggling to transmute its gas-patch cash into real community. (He also climbed Wamsutter's water tower to get a bird's eye view of the town and the "bleak handsomeness" of the landscape.) In 2005, Ring found another gas-patch boom town, Pinedale, Wyoming, faring better as it taps state and local taxes to build a new hockey rink, a riding arena at the fairgrounds, a new senior center, new county shops, hiking paths, and a $600,000 practice field for high school athletics ("Gold from the Gas Fields," HCN 11/28/2005). But even in Pinedale, Ring discovered, many residents feel that the boom's downsides — doubled housing costs, air pollution from the rigs, increased crime — outweigh the gains.

"Boom! Boom!" blared HCN's cover story on May 12, 2008, as natural gas drilling is peaking. HCN author Francisco Tharp found Rifle, Colorado once again torn between fast cash and stable community. Rifle busted hard during the 1982 oil shale crash, but had rebuilt itself as a tourist and retirement community serving the nearby mountain resorts. When coalbed methane rigs rolled into town in the late '90s, they were at odds with Rifle's new amenities economy ("Colliding forces," HCN 9/25/2000). And in 2008, Tharp surveyed the damage of the growing gas boom: teachers are being driven away by rising housing costs, and roughnecks frequent a homeless shelter. 

"Will today's influx of cash and commerce help lay the foundation for tomorrow's sustainable economy?" Tharp asked. "Or will the thousands of drill rigs and thousands more workers reduce the amenity economy — not to mention the landscape — to a shambles, like a tornado tearing through a trailer park?"

HCN has always basically stood by the hope that sustainable communities can fit with the Western landscape. But, then again, nothing makes headlines quite like a boom — or the inevitable bust.

Marshall Swearingen is a former HCN intern and Bozeman, Montana-based freelance writer who has read many dusty old editions of HCN.