In the late 1980s my first assignment was one with far reaching ramifications.
Unfortunately, as a very young “reporter,” I didn’t understand that at the time.
The word “reporter” is in quotes because experience is what makes a good reporter. And often times that experience is gained by first being a corporate flunky who may very well be earnest, hard-working and devoted to communities in which they live. What they do not have is the invaluable experience of knowing how or when they are being used.
The shale oil boom and bust in Western Colorado of the late 80s has much in common with the Tar Sands myth of today.
“Past is Prologue”
The Unsanitary Napkin–Chapter 2
On the way to my first “reporting” assignment that night, I stopped by 7/11 for a six pack of powdered donuts and a Big Gulp. My virginal reporter’s pad tucked under my armpit, my number 2 pencil behind my ear and a jerk of the door handle—kaboom!—I ran smack into the men I’d later call the “boom and bust boys.” They were standing just inside the doors of the Mesa County Supervisors meeting. They were the prettiest gaggle of masculine musk I’ve ever seen or smelled. Money and power was in the room.
After a clean, wide-mouthed delivery of another powered donut in my pie hole, I chewed fast hoping no one would notice. But the gaggle witnessed it all. They laughed together as gaggles tend to do. Not a mean sort of laugh, but the type that made it clear they’d already figured out I wasn’t from the New York Times. It took me years to understand why they were delighted to see me. And, turns out, it had nothing to do with my natural charm. They were lusting over my reporter’s pad…looking for potential stenographers. The blonde, eating powdered donuts on her first day of “reporting,” looked like a good bet to them.
My blond thoughts, of course, were much more pedestrian. They were focused on my not-so-well-heeled and suffocating feet which, by now, were barking out for band-aids. That’s when the prettiest of the Gucchi Gulch boys confidently reached out his hand, “My, my, my, so you’re the jewel of Colorado.” I kept chewing, but instantly thought this guy could sell plaque to teeth. “We are hoping to harvest some black Colorado gold, but you’re about the most golden thing in this room.” Black gold was oil. I knew that from watching “The Beverly Hillbillies” as a little kid. It was right there in the show’s theme song: “Black gold, Texas tea.” These were oil men.“Hartmann is my name, Alex Hartman and we’re here to make the people of Grand Junction rich.”“Great, start with me,” I laughed while pulling off my shoe and hopping toward the medicine cabinet. Fake sympathy oozed as he took a hyperbolic gander at my blisters.
“Ouch, that must hurt.” He was looking down on me in more ways than one.
“You mentioned money before. My bank account could use a boost, how do you plan to make us all rich?”His muscular arm grabbed a napkin from a nearby table while he asked to borrow the number 2 pencil now stuck through a big-ball of my hair locking it into submission. After my heels were bandaged, Hartman pointed toward a quiet table away from the crowd. His friends never took their eyes off of us, except perhaps for occasional darting glances to make sure no respectable reporter armed with skepticism had arrived. I gave Hartman the pencil and my hair fell down. That’s never good for keeping the playing field level. Even on my first day, I knew sex appeal and reporting, like oil and water, should never mix.
“I’m guessing you are oil men. Why are you here?” I grabbed a rubber band and forced my hair inside. He picked up his forefinger and pointed, “That man’s from Unocal. He’s from Chevron. He’s from Exxon, he’s from Occidental, and he’s from Tenneco.”
“Odd,” I thought, “such fancy manners, and yet, he doesn’t know its rude to point.” He pulled down his darting digit, “We are here because of oil shale. Let me show you how it’ll work.”
On the napkin he scribbled a drawing of a huge, cylindrical sky-scraper, grain-mill looking device he called a “retort.” In the most layman of terms, he began explaining what oil shale was and his dreams of what it might do.
There’s a massive amount of oil in the Green River Valley, which reaches from Utah, across Colorado and into Wyoming. Its sedimentary rock contains kerogen. The kerogen is heated up, releasing its hydrocarbons. That’s crude oil or natural gas.”
He hadn’t yet mentioned President Jimmy Carter’s $88 billion dole out plan called Synfuels. Every oil company represented would eventually receive billions in taxpayer money. Mr. Carter desperately wanted more domestic fuel. But, the oil companies were not really interested in foreign affairs…they were interested in getting their hands on that money. As for me, I was busy nodding and smiling. At 25 years old, I was relieved that I understood what he was telling me…so far.
In the subsequent two years of “reporting” on oil shale development, I never heard the acronym “OPEC” mentioned by anyone. It was the Arab ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that Mr. Carter was spending all those billions trying to get off America’s back.
At this time, in the summer of 1980, the world economy had been wrecked twice in less than ten years by OPEC’s political retaliation. Once it happened after America supplied massive amounts of arms to Israel, making it possible for Israel to win the 1973 Arab/Israeli war. OPEC’s “ministers,” pissed off by America’s assistance, cut oil supplies to zero. That was the first “oil crisis” of the 70’s. Another crisis occurred six years later, in 1979, a direct result of the fall of America’s longstanding buddy, the Shah of Iran. Just one year later, we ended up in this room in Grand Junction, Colorado. Mr. Carter’s far-reaching goal was to pry OPEC ministers’ retaliatory hands away from America’s increasingly exposed neck. Desperate, and willing to give anyone with a new idea billions, the Western Colorado oil shale boom began full-stop. Of course, oil shale, “the rock that burns,” was not new. It had been used in Third World countries for hundreds of years, stacked into fireplaces to make the warmth last longer. But, I didn’t know that then.
Towns with Wild West names like Silt, Rifle, and Parachute, were born almost overnight. Western Colorado residents were so slap-ass happy they practically skipped around town. I picked up my oil shale pom-poms and the microphone and reported all the positive news available. Much of it came in the form of oil company press releases. My curiosity ended there. If “reporters” explained the enormous amounts of energy it took to “harness” this new form of energy, talked of the billions of barrels of water taken from the once pristine Green River to cool the shale, or described the massive explosions that leveled great chunks of the Rocky Mountains, I never heard it. Did anyone explain that the water was contaminated after cooling the shale rocks? I know I sure didn’t. What happened to all that tainted water? The questions were not asked until years later when it was too late to do anything.
My pretty little head didn’t worry about any of that. I was trained in teaching Shakespeare. My reports heralded new schools, a new airport, new shopping centers and Grand Junction’s first high-rise office building. It shames me to remember all the ribbon cutting events I not only attended, but did the actual ribbon cutting myself. What a schmuck.
At first, the boom was a Mardi Gras! We all shopped at the humungous, new indoor Mesa Mall. Fast food establishments moved in quicker than Crisco clogs arteries. And the hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars the oil companies spent on commercials kept reporters at newspapers, television and radio stations happily sedated until judgment day.
After two years of massive bombing and building, it was time to fire up the first “working” retort. Remember that sketch on my now prized napkin? Finally, we’d see the wonder of it all! CEO’s, oil company presidents,city officials and reporters, stood like birds on a wire, staring up at the monstrous phallic symbol–but taxpayers were already screwed.
The retort did a shimmy and a shake and burped, and audibly protested against the massive amount of heat used to “melt,” the fossil fuel from the rocks. We leaned forward…almost willing the oil to emerge. After a few minutes, little more than a wet, anti-climatic squirt of muddy-filthy-crude emerged from the bottom of the tower. And, to whittle down a complicated story, that was it.
For years, I compulsively obsessed over the memory of that night in council chambers and my part in that sad passion play. i’d been nothing more than a PR tool.
The experience both humiliated and shaped me. I began to understand how far-off events, in this case, wars between Arabs and Jews, affected everything and everyone in the world. OPEC’s retaliation explained not only geopolitics, it also explained my plastic shoes, my old Datsun that got forty miles to the gallon, 18 percent home interest rates, stolen diner crackers, donuts for dinner, and why I’d taken a job just that day agreeing to clean toilets.
In the meantime, oil company giants spent the billions and then wrote off the losses. Most made record profits during those few years. Those Gucchi Gulch boys got what they wanted. Shale we dance? I know my neighbors didn’t feel like dancing. They were putting labels on furniture for emergency garage sales and auctioning off their houses. Hundreds lost their homes when they lost their jobs. Suicide skyrocketed in Grand Junction and surrounding areas. The Wild West towns built with those Wild West names became home to tumbling tumbleweeds. An acquaintance who’d built that high-rise for the oil executives…rode the elevator to the top and threw himself off off the roof of the building.
During this time, I became known as the “oil shale” expert!? The oil companies made sure of that. After all, I had the original, historic “Napkin” with the sketch of the first retort model on it. I was the Western Slope’s most reliable stenographer! Finally, I spit on the napkin and threw it in the trash, ashamed of the ignorance and raw exuberance that led me to frame it and set it like a trophy on my desk.
Oil shale provided an epiphanic experience, relegating my metaphorical cheerleader outfit to the trash along with the napkin. Fledgling reporters take note…especially if reporting in oil and gas rich areas. In 2007, some 26 years later, The Denver Post’s headline read: “Grand Junction becomes boom town.” It was déjà vu all over again! This time, Halliburton honed in on Grand Junction’s supply of natural gas. That story was followed two years later by a headline reading: “Halliburton prepares for massive layoffs in Grand Junction.” A 2009 article explains that the oil companies are now moving back to their old digs on a massive scale. They are going to try oil shale again! I’m not kidding. One (well respected) reporter wrote: “Sooner or later, the oil trapped in the shale of Colorado will flow to the surface and, when it does, it will enrich investors who arrive early on the scene.” I wanted to scream, “Put down the pom-poms and pick up a history book or punch up some Google articles.” The only thing capable of coaxing oil from shale is millions of years of geological pressure and time.
The 1980-1982 boom and bust is now just another inconvenient story, one that’s long since swirled down America’s memory hole. I wonder if KSTAR is looking for a young reporter who knows nothing of the past and is willing to cheer on the “future.”