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Oil Shale Rush Is Déjà Vu All Over Again

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The Paramount Theater has played host to an eclectic array of shows, but few are more unlikely than the one taking place on June 23: the first public hearing in a proposed week's worth of sessions at which Coloradoans are encouraged to weigh in on proposed regulations related to the oil and gas industry. The Associated Press estimates that 400 people showed up to voice their opinions and concerns even though the most vigorous mining and drilling activity is taking place on the opposite side of the state.

Of course, the Western Slope has seen this sort of activity before, and as a Grand Junction native, I vividly remember both the boom and the bust. The latter struck on May 2, 1982, a day known in G.J. as "Black Sunday" -- and the "black" referred to gloom, not the color of the oil shale that's prevalent throughout the region.

Prior to that date, Grand Junction and other nearby communities were enjoying a spate of economic prosperity unrivaled since the days when another mineral, uranium, brought heavy industry, and plenty of jobs, to the area (and left a legacy of radioactivity that lingered for decades afterward). Oil shale had never been economical to extract and squeeze, but after the oil shortages of the 1970s, Exxon decided that the time was right to invest. By the early '80s, however, prices and supplies had stabilized to a large degree, and the company honchos decided to cut their losses. That day in May, an Exxon representative phoned then-Colorado governor Dick Lamm to let him know that the company was pulling out -- and untold thousands of residents felt the impact immediately and for years thereafter. In the fall of 1984, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, and upon my return at holiday time, I was shocked to discover that nice homes in Grand Junction were selling for as little as $15,000 a pop.

During the quarter century since then, Grand Junction slowly recovered, in part because of its success as recasting itself as a retirement destination. But recently, the ever-increasing price of fuel has caused big firms to roll into town again, with many of them hoping to complete the process Exxon began during the Reagan administration.

With even George W. Bush cheerleading for oil-shale excavation, the momentum for easing restrictions is considerable. Still, caution is in order. In a fine May 2007 column for High Country News, Grand Junction's Jim Spehar remembered a bumper sticker that was popular in the wake of Black Sunday. It read, "Please Give Me Another Oil Shale Boom, and I Promise Not to Piss It Away This Time."

Good advice. -- Michael Roberts

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