Boom! Boom!

In western Colorado, an energy boom of unprecedented proportions has been layered on top of a thriving amenity economy. Which will come out on top?

  • Rush hour traffic in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where workers pass through on their way home from resort towns like Aspen to down-valley bedroom communities. ED KOSMICKI

  • Gas wells and their supporting truck traffic have boomed along the scenic Colorado River in Garfield County, Colorado, where more than 2,500 gas well permits were issued last year. ED KOSMICKI

  • In Rifle, Colorado, the average home now goes for $350,000. ED KOSMICKI

  • Barber Mike Wood has held on through Rifle's ups and downs. FRANCISCO THARP

  • The East Fork of Parachute Creek - home to rare plants and animals and one of Colorado's tallest waterfalls - runs through the 70,000-acre Roan Plateau in the heart of oil shale and gas country. Despite strong public opposition to drilling on the top of the scenic plateau, the BLM has released plans to allow 193 well pads there in the next 20 years. COURTESY COLORADO ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION

 

RIFLE, COLORADO -- The glass eyes of a trophy elk stare across the dining room at a tarnished, double-barreled shotgun and a couple of old lever-action rifles. On another wall in the Basecamp Cafe, a four-pound rainbow trout is forever frozen in flight. Men in boots and NASCAR ball caps sit beneath the trophies, digging into their eggs and bacon. At the horseshoe-shaped counter, a woman answers her cell phone in Mexican Spanish, and a guy with a salt-and-pepper beard, wire specs and a felt hat slouches over a mug of black coffee.

And just down the counter, with a shaved head, pierced ears and a Sanskrit "Om"tattoo, sits Ganesha. He sips green tea from a Styrofoam cup and tries to recruit the waitresses to his full-moon drum circle and daily yoga classes. Folks seem to take it in stride. This type of socioeconomic layering is pretty typical in Rifle, Colo., where immigrant service workers, retirees, roughnecks and even a yogi or two regularly rub elbows.

After an energy bust flattened the region 26 years ago, Rifle slowly rebuilt itself as a tourist and retirement town and bedroom community for the flourishing nearby resort towns of Aspen and Vail. Then, about five years ago, the energy industry invaded. High-wage workers poured in by the thousands to man the drill rigs that popped up to tap one of the nation's largest natural gas reserves. The result, says one Rifle economic planner, has been a "perfect storm"of industry in Garfield County on Colorado's Western Slope.

The tempest rages across the region: southwest to Mesa County and the 50,000-person metropolis of Grand Junction, north into rural Rio Blanco and Moffat counties. And it's enabled these communities to thrive while other Western cities are dragged down by a sinking national economy. There is almost no unemployment here, real estate values are soaring, and the breakneck pace of development is hampered only by construction companies' inability to scrape up enough workers.

In other words, the long-running struggle to build a post-bust economy in western Colorado appears to be over. With the gas industry's $80,000-plus average annual wages and its contributions to county coffers through property and severance taxes, the region should remain flush for quite a while.

However, a few cracks have split the shiny veneer of prosperity. Traffic sometimes piles up for the entire length of Rifle's once-sleepy main drag, and roughnecks pack the hotel rooms, leaving tourists without a bed. Fast food joints have a hard time coaxing people to flip burgers - Grand Junction's Burger King even offered a $300 signing bonus to lure new employees. It leads to the region's essential question: What will this storm mean for the identities of these communities? Will today's influx of cash and commerce help lay the foundation for tomorrow's sustainable economy? 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?

Rifle is no stranger to energy booms and their painful busts. The town is the access point to the rugged Piceance (pronounced PEE-awnce) Basin. Underneath these scrub- and conifer-covered mesas and narrow canyons lies a virtually untapped trove of fossil fuels, including one of the continent's largest natural gas reservoirs and 1 trillion barrels of shale oil. In the late 1970s, Exxon and other energy companies responded to President Jimmy Carter's call for energy self-sufficiency by making a play for the oil shale. Then, in 1982, came a sudden drop in oil prices, and on what's now known as "Black Sunday,"Exxon abandoned its $5 billion venture overnight. More than 2,000 jobs were lost in a community of about 5,000, and property values washed out faster than the Colorado River's banks in a high spring runoff. Mayor Keith Lambert recalls that his house, bought in 1981, depreciated by $40,000 in one week. Suddenly, about 60 percent of the houses on his block were empty. "It looked like a modern-day ghost town, and those houses had just been completed that year,"he says.

But the town is conveniently located near two major Colorado financial powers: Pitkin and Eagle counties, the respective homes of Aspen and Vail. As those communities scaled up, high housing costs pushed the working class farther and farther down valley. Eventually, the refugees reached Rifle, which, despite being 70 miles away, became a man-camp of sorts for Aspen's service and construction workers. A 2007 study estimated that, in the 1990s, Garfield County residents filled 43 percent of the new jobs in Pitkin County and 10 percent in Eagle County. Despite the lengthy commute and occasional rural traffic jams, the relationship worked in its own way. "We were a bedroom community,"says the mayor. "That's what drove our recovery."