The need to remember Black Sunday
by Jim Spehar
Is there any more fitting reminder that May 2 marked the 25th anniversary of “Black Sunday” than recent word that ExxonMobil wants to get back into the oil shale business?
For all of you newcomers to the West — and to those of us who’ve spent 25 years trying to forget it — May 2, 1982, was the day Exxon announced that it was pulling the plug on the largest boom in modern western Colorado history. After a courtesy call in the morning to then-Gov. Dick Lamm, Exxon managers locked the gates to the company’s appropriately named Colony Project, signaling the end for thousands of workers. It also signaled the beginning of a decade or more of struggling recovery for Western Slope communities that had overbuilt in anticipation of Exxon’s boastful predictions.
Lest anyone think that’s all behind us, all you have to do is take a look around today. Mesa County’s unemployment rate is so low that wages for everything from fast-food workers to house cleaners are going up. And just try to find a place to rent or a house that’s affordable. Those of us speeding down I-70 on a regular basis know that the long lines at some exits aren’t caused by workers heading off to the resort towns of Glenwood Springs, Snowmass or Aspen; they’re heading for Parachute, Rulison and Rifle, where the landscape has been transformed into an industrial zone.
I was reminded of the similarities to the last boom last summer when I ran into the rancher and restaurateur Doug King, at Chuck’s Marine Service. We’re both Grand Junction natives, but I was away during the oil shale boom that transformed the area. King lived in the city and experienced what happened first-hand when government subsidies fueled the oil shale boom. “Isn’t it eerie,” Doug said, “how much this feels like last time?”
I knew exactly what he meant. I’d been part of the area’s “Vision 2020” process a few years ago, which included face-to-face interviews with more than a thousand people. Whether they lived here in 1982 or not, they’d learned that the defining moment in Grand Junction’s history was “Black Sunday” and the social and economic havoc that followed. Jobs vanished, banks failed, homes and businesses were foreclosed on. It seemed the end of the world.
Today, the undeniable reality is that all the resources that fuel the current extractive boom — including coal, natural gas, coalbed methane, oil shale and the supporting pipelines, power plants and transmission corridors — are going great guns. The current boom is happening not only because this country needs energy independence and security, but also because of the boosterism of many of us and the hopes of politicians eager to look like problem-solvers. Too many of them (and us) are grasping at conventional straws and giving short shrift to the long-term reality that we can’t drill or mine our way out of this energy-box forever.
The trick will be to heed the lessons we should have learned a quarter-century ago. One lesson is not building a house of cards on the shaky foundation of government subsidies. The second lesson is that we need to set aside some of those taxes, royalties and fees in preparation for a softer landing instead of a sudden and brutal crash.
Despite the pap about not “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” we need to ensure that the institutions our rural communities depend on have adequate resources to deal with the present and future cumulative impacts of the boom. Whether it’s Exxon or Shell or Chevron, Williams, EnCana or Genesis, none of those companies laid those golden eggs. They’re just cracking them where they found them and expect to profit mightily from selling pretty pricey omelets.
Framed on a wall in my office is one of those infamous red-and-white bumper stickers that surfaced right after Black Sunday. “Please give me another oil shale boom,” its irreverent message proclaims, “and I promise not to p--s it away this time.” But if we’re not smart enough to heed the lessons we had to learn the hard way 25 years ago, maybe a better message is: “Be careful what you dream.”
Jim Spehar lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he works for the Sonoran Institute and serves on the city council.