There was a time in much of the West when communities would hop onto an extractive boom like a hobo onto a freight train, determined to ride those high-paying jobs all the way to the end of the line. That was certainly the case in western Colorado for a long time. But these extractive economies ran out of steam in the 1970s and 1980s, and the resort, recreation and tourism industries moved in to take their place. And then came the retirees, telecommuters and other so-called amenity migrants, to build an economy that may have been slower-moving than in the past, but also more stable and less prone to running off the rails at high speed.
Then, six or seven years ago, a bullet train of a boom came rushing through the countryside in the form of thousands of oil and gas wells. It's unlike any boom that's come before. It's huge: Gas and oil rigs are popping up in places people never dreamed they would, at unprecedented, incomprehensible speed. Colorado approved more than 28,000 drilling permits during the last eight years, more than were issued during the previous 18 years combined. Nationwide, gas wells are being sunk at three times the rate that they were a decade ago.
Economically speaking, there's a lot more to lose, and maybe to gain, this time around. Will the energy rush help the amenity economy? Or flatten it entirely, like a penny on the railroad tracks? It's a question that's on a lot of people's minds these days.
"How can we develop these energy resources in a way that does not risk other economies that are generating a lot more wealth and jobs?"asks Ben Alexander, an economist with Headwaters Economics who has been studying the boom-on-top-of-a-boom question. "You didn't have to think about that two decades ago."
For this issue's cover story, Francisco Tharp went to Rifle, Colo., ground zero for the current boom, and asked those questions. He comes up with a few answers, but mostly ends up generating more questions.
On certain levels, there are fairly clear-cut ways to mitigate the impacts of this boom. Local governments can use the substantial property taxes collected from the industry to pay higher wages and cover increased operational costs resulting from the boom, and they can levy impact fees on gas companies to help with roads and other infrastructure costs. Colorado can change its severance tax structure to put it in line with other energy-producing states like New Mexico and Wyoming, and then allocate those funds to the counties that are bearing the brunt of the boom.
But all this will only go so far. No matter how much money pours into these communities - no matter how many new roads, parks and swimming pools are built - it can't undo all the impacts to the land, the wildlife, the water and the air quality. Nor can it make up for the loss of an even more fragile resource: the quality of life that brought so many of us out here.
So what can be done? On May 15, High Country News hopes to get a little closer to an answer. We've convened a panel of local experts to sit down and hash it all out. And you're invited to attend and participate. For details, see the advertisement on page 17.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.