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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.