Black Sunday, 30 years later

  • Andrew Gulliford


I’m a fairly outspoken environmentalist, so what was I doing having dinner recently in Grand Junction, Colo., with retired executives from ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world? Well, it was kind of a reunion, since Exxon and I go back to the early 1980s, a time when I was teaching fourth grade in the small town of Silt, and Exxon strode into western Colorado as the developer of oil shale.

After Exxon announced in 1982 that it would create an 8 million-barrel-per-day-industry by 2010, thousands of workers poured into the Colorado River Valley from the depressed Midwest and the South. The local economy roared, with Exxon spending a million dollars a day in an area 60 miles long and 20 miles wide. It was a lot like driving a dump truck full of $100 bills through small towns with the tailgate open. It was boomtown euphoria.

Everyone had work. Because of limited housing, Exxon established “man camps” up Parachute Creek for workers on round-the-clock shifts. Pastors scrambled to build new churches. Prostitutes arrived from Denver to ply their trade out of VW buses. Even a guy called “Danny the Bum” made spare change sweeping Parachute’s streets.

There was a free-for-all rush to build new schools, pave streets, erect town halls, hire police and plat subdivisions for an estimated 1.5 million people.  On 2,300 acres across the Colorado River from Parachute, an entirely new town was built, called Battlement Mesa. It would sport a golf course, shopping mall and housing, with executive homes on the 18thhole. Exxon promised its workers years of employment as company executives arrived from Texas in tailored jeans, hand-tooled boots and big smiles. “We’re from Houston and we’re here to help you,” they said.

County commissioners smiled back as they trotted out their wish lists. Then on Sunday, May 2, 1982, it all went pop. Exxon’s board of directors frowned at the declining price of oil and pulled the plug, leaving the valley in shock.

I watched my friends lose their jobs, their houses and finally, their marriages. The president of the First National Bank in Grand Junction shot himself. The First National Bank in Rifle closed because so many people demanded their money. Desperate depositors lined the block.

Businesses that had survived the Great Depression in the 1930s failed after Exxon’s pullout. Overnight, 2,300 people were out of work. Within a week, there were no U-Haul trailers within 100 miles. By summer’s end, 5,000 people had deserted the valley, and over the next few years 15,000 people would become Colorado exiles. My wife and I left, too.

We went to graduate school and there I wrote my doctoral dissertation on what happened, calling it Boomtown Blues: Colorado Oil Shale. Business Week wrote, “The book is more than colorful history. It is a warning we would do well to heed.”

So what was I doing drinking with 32 Exxon retirees and their spouses? I thought I’d try to put a face on a corporation. I thought I might learn something.

I’d already learned that Exxon had misled county commissioners in Mesa, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties by concealing the fact that the company had secret, 30-day shutdown clauses so that it could get out of multimillion dollar construction contracts.

“Life’s funny and deals you different cards,” said silver-haired Charles Pence, former president of Battlement Mesa Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon. “The oil company thought about the shareholders. A company like that can’t accommodate a small group of people.”

Bob Skyles spent 29 years working for Exxon and told me, “When we came here in 1981, we thought this was to be our final assignment. We were heartbroken after the shutdown. Exxon came in here with both feet and they didn’t have their shoes on.”

A few former workers said they longed to retire in Colorado. Some couples already have. I was impressed by their loyalty to one another and to their careers, but I couldn’t help but think of all the local lives shattered by Exxon’s corporate hubris -- the decade-long economic depression shared by Grand Junction and Rifle, the bankruptcies, the foreclosures, the blighted lives, the lost hopes.

Thirty years ago, Fortune Magazine wrote that Exxon’s departure from oil shale “had all the abruptness of a teenager making a screeching u-turn.” Oil shale keeps threatening to come back, but this time around, let’s not jump in with our eyes closed. Let’s insist on finding a proven technology that does not squander water, pollute the air and threaten wildlife and archaeological sites. The Old West was boom and bust. The Next West needs to embody environmentally and socially responsible energy development.

Just imagine if, in the 1980s, Exxon’s board of directors had dedicated that same billion dollars it blew on oil shale to, say, something like solar energy. Where would we be now?

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

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