"The task is great. So is the need. And there is no time to lose," said Exxon executives in their infamous "White Paper" of 1980. Those bombastic words came at the conclusion of Exxon's plan to help solve the nation's energy crisis of the 1970s.
Long lines at the pump and oil embargoes had prompted a government-sponsored effort to develop a synthetic fuels industry, and with the promise of some federal help, Exxon was off and running.
The now legendary but seldom seen White Paper, formally titled "The Role of Synthetic Fuels in the United States Energy Future," appeared in the early summer of 1980. Its forecasts, plus a more detailed presentation to western Colorado's Club 20 that August, left many people amazed: Exxon was thinking really, really big.
Synfuels were to be a 15 million barrel-per-day answer to the nation's thirst for energy. Cracking rocks laced with oil would provide 12 percent of our energy needs by the early part of the 21st century, and 8 million barrels would come from oil shale in Colorado's Piceance Basin and the Uintah Basin to the west. Another 7 million barrels would come from coal, mostly from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, the Dakotas, and the Southern Rockies.
As for workers, there would be 1 million people employed by the synfuels industry in western Colorado. Wyoming would house nearly three times its current population. In each of a half-dozen huge pit mines, workers would move 3.7 million tons of material every day to get at "the rock that burns," providing more tonnage than the entire U.S. coal industry. Needed water would come from faraway river basins.
Reading the White Paper today, energy analyst Randy Udall calls these scenarios "visions in search of reality." And as everyone probably knows, less than 24 months after producing its White Paper, Exxon shut down its Colony Project, shattering the lives of thousands of workers and throwing nearby communities into economic and social turmoil.
Thirty years later, the promise of new oil-shale technology is prompting increased research and development activity and renewed leasing of federal oil shale lands. "This time it's different," proponents claim. Veterans of the last boom and bust take a more jaundiced view.
"We've seen this movie before," says Dick Lamm, who was Colorado's governor in the ‘80s. He has a warning this time around: "Oil shale is a tsunami … something of a scale and magnitude that it just demands special attention, special warning and special examination."
Tim Schultz, now president of the Denver-based Boettcher Foundation, was a 31-year-old Rio Blanco County commissioner during the Exxon days. Lamm recalls Schultz as one of the local leaders who was not "willing to sell out their heritage for a promise." Schultz and others backed an industry-funded Oil Shale Trust Fund, which assisted with up-front impact costs and helped soften the bust.
"It's kind of hard to plan for the peaks," Schultz warns, "but you always want to remember that those valleys are just around the corner."
Bill Ekstrand recalls the bust particularly well; he was a member of Exxon's synthetic fuels team and had the unenviable job of wrapping things up after the corporation left town. These days he's guarded about oil shale: "I'm not so pessimistic as to say it'll never get developed," he says, "but I don't think it's inevitable."
Udall and Lamm see things differently. "If oil imports stopped tomorrow, if the Persian Gulf went up in flames, there would be calls for a similar effort," Udall warns. "Almost inevitably, oil shale will be tested again, this time on a larger scale," adds Lamm.
Can western Colorado get ready for the boom next time? Current oil shale efforts seem to be treated like science projects involving issues of technology and geography. We seem to pay little attention to the social and economic impacts of energy development. If the science experiments are successful; if technological promises bear fruit; if commercial leasing gets under way and if a crisis speeds the pace, it will be impossible for communities to play catch-up.
A decade ago in Grand Junction, an effort called "Vision 2020" asked more than 1,000 local residents to talk about living in the area. It may have been 20 years since those grandiose White Paper forecasts and the bust that followed, but respondents mostly named Black Sunday as the defining moment in their community's evolution.
Let's hope that painful history doesn't repeat itself.
Jim Spehar is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a former mayor of Grand Junction as well as a former Mesa County Commissioner in western Colorado.