Booming with pride but wary of a bust
Rangely was founded on top of a rich oil field. But slowdown has town laboring to diversify
RANGELY — As many Colorado communities and the state struggle with managing conflicts between oil and gas development and residential development, the town of Rangely stands as something of an anomaly.
This town was built on oil drilling and continues to coexist with production of the fuel to this day.
While Rangely existed as a settlement and oil camp for decades beforehand, it didn’t incorporate until 1947, in the middle of a drilling boom in the oil field that the town sits on top of and that stretches off to the northwest of it.
Even today, oil-well pumpjacks nod within the town itself, interspersed with homes, businesses, parks and public buildings. Talk to locals, and there’s a good chance they work in the oil and gas industry, or perhaps in natural gas production operations in the Rangely area or in coal mining at the Deserado Mine northeast of Rangely, which ships its coal by rail to a power plant over the Utah border. Or if they don’t work in the energy industry, they likely have relatives who do or did.
Few people in the area complain about the oil field, said Sam Tolley, manager of Alliance Energy Service, which does work for Chevron. He said it would be hard to find five people who would oppose it if someone proposed drilling 50 wells in town.
“They’d say, 50? Let’s drill 60,” he said.
This town is proud of its energy history and the many jobs that fossil fuels still provide for the region. But residents also recognize the challenges of what can be a boom-and-bust industry, and they are working on ways to diversify the economy.
FORECLOSURES UP, REVENUE DOWN
Tolley believes there always will be oil field jobs in the Rangely area, but that the town needs a better foundation so it’s not just dependent economically on the field.
The most recent energy slowdown in the Rangely area has been a significant one. Tolley’s company had to lay off about 25 employees last year.
Derryle Baker, who’s retired from the industry, said people are losing jobs and houses and moving.
“You can’t find a job in Rangely right now,” he said.
He said 15 homes at one point were for sale on a two-block stretch.
Town Manager Peter Brixius, who has held his job for about a decade, said a local real estate agent has told him 30 percent of her sales involve foreclosures.
“We do have a fair amount of vacancy. … A lot of old-timers tell me that this is one of the more severe downturns that we’ve had,” he said.
He said the town’s population seems to fluctuate depending on what’s happening in the energy industry, from about 2,200 to 2,500 people, roughly half the number he’s been told lived there during the early boom days.
“About 30 percent of our households are today directly tied to the extractions industry,” he said.
“… It’s a daily reminder when you go by a derrick pumping away within town limits that that’s our history,” he said.
The extraction industry remains important to Rangely, in part because such jobs are hard to replace.
“They pay really well, generate a lot of revenue and afford us opportunities to have amenities towns our size generally could not afford,” Brixius said.
But he said the reality is that local extraction jobs likely won’t ever recover to previous levels, for reasons ranging from increased efficiencies and automation in how resources are extracted, to increasingly efficient use of fuels by consumers. He said it’s important that the town not have a one-legged stool in terms of its economy.
“We are working feverishly, looking at opportunities for diversification for our economy,” he said.
The status quo won’t suffice for the town. Brixius said it started seeing declining revenues in 2014, and has been taking steps such as cutting back overtime and not replacing some jobs lost through attrition. He remembers the town receiving fossil-fuel severance and federal mineral lease revenues of $2.5 million in a year, not including grants. This year the town is anticipating getting just under $1 million in such revenues, which means they’ll account for about a fifth or a quarter of its income, down from about a half. Annual sales tax revenues are down from about $1.1 million a year to probably $700,000 or $750,000, Brixius said.
“Right now, as far as economically, it’s looking pretty bleak,” Baker said.
“They even took our stoplights down,” he said, pointing to the state’s decision to remove the town’s downtown light on Colorado Highway 64 after a re-evaluation of the need for it after a truck hit a light post.
Said Brixius, “It was the only stoplight in Rio Blanco County, so just from a notoriety standpoint, we wanted to keep it.”
OUTDOOR RECREATION, BROADBAND POSSIBLE DRAWS
As for how Rangely might bring in enough new jobs and residents to warrant getting a stoplight again, “I think it’s a multipronged attack,” Brixius said.
“We’re working on event planning, which has been pretty successful this year,” he said.
Activities including an off-road car race and a hang-gliding event have drawn newcomers to the area to experience its widespread outdoor recreation opportunities.
The Rangely area also is working to promote mountain biking, coordinating with the Bureau of Land Management to identify appropriate trails. The BLM is developing an off-highway vehicle system in the area, and a rock-crawling area also exists near town for extreme four-wheeling. Prehistoric rock art in the area is another attraction.
“All of these new activities, and knowing that there is more to do here, helps draw people in,” said longtime Rangely resident Brenda Hopkins, director of the Rangely Outdoor Museum.
Tolley said the Rangely Area Chamber of Commerce “is working really hard to get more people” to visit the town.
A countywide effort to install fast broadband service is offering further promise. Brixius said he knows of a couple who moved to the area from Houston and are working from home.
Good broadband service could attract technical writers and internet marketers who can work from anywhere and might decide to live in Rangely, with its abundant outdoor offerings and cheaper housing, rather than somewhere such as pricey Denver, Brixius believes.
He also has been keeping an eye on the marijuana industry and keeping the town council apprised in case it’s something the town wants to consider. It currently has a moratorium on such businesses, and Brixius said his police chief believes that’s best for the town.
Brixius said there also have been some early stage conversations with an engineering group out of Utah about a possible natural gas power plant being built in the region. While the idea could add jobs and tax revenues and make use of a locally produced resource, it would require an evaluation of things such as water availability, level of demand for the power that would be produced, and the ability to build or access electrical transmission lines.
Meanwhile, a major existing asset in Rangely that could figure prominently in its economic future is Colorado Northwestern Community College, which has gained renown for offerings such as its flight and dental hygiene programs.
Bud Striegel, who is now retired from his family pipeline business and donated $1 million to the college, has invested in the town another way with his opening of the Rangely Automotive Museum, featuring classic cars and motorcycles he had collected most of his life.
He describes the museum as “not a moneymaker at all.”
“I just thought people would like old cars and come to town and rent a room and buy a hamburger,” he said.
Brixius hopes the diversification efforts in the town will result in more restaurants, places to shop and things to do, for locals as well as visitors.
“You start adding different amenities, it benefits every single resident in town,” Brixius said.
He added, “Everybody’s got their challenges, but ours are pretty significant right now. We have a lot of people working on it, a lot of good stuff going on. I’m encouraged.”
ENERGY INDUSTRY VIEWS VARY
People such as Tolley and Striegel think the energy industry could do considerably better in a more supportive regulatory environment. Tolley cited issues ranging from what he considers overreaching federal regulatory efforts to control methane emissions from oil and gas operations, to permitting times that are far slower in some BLM offices than for private-land development in places such as Texas.
He also pointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s rejection during the Obama administration of the Jordan Cove, Oregon, natural gas export project, which could source some of its gas from western Colorado. The project proponent is refiling for approval by FERC.
Tolley defends oil and gas development as having what he considers to be a pretty small footprint on the land.
He added, “The oil companies, they bend over backwards to go above and beyond the regulations.”
While that’s likely a predominant viewpoint in and around a town so closely linked with oil development, some take a more reserved view toward the industry.
Leona Hemmerich, who lives in Blue Mountain north of Rangely and co-owns the BedRock Depot ice cream and sandwich shop in Dinosaur, said she’s fine with drilling occurring in some places, including existing oil fields, but opposes an overly aggressive “drill-baby-drill” mentality and thinks some places should be off limits.
She said expressing such views got her in trouble with a boss in a previous job she held in the region.
She opposes drilling near Dinosaur National Monument. The BLM is planning to lease near the monument in Utah.
“People who are coming to see the monument are not coming to see drill rigs,” she said.
Back in Rangely, people are coming in ever-increasing numbers to Rangely’s oddball attraction known officially as the TANK Center for Sonic Arts.
“Most people around here had raised eyebrows when they first heard about the tank,” Brixius said.
But doubts have been erased as what Brixius calls “really a sonic marvel” has drawn support and musicians from far and wide, while also inspiring locals to record a Christmas album there as a fundraising effort for schoolkids.
Multiple fundraisers for the tank itself have raised more than $100,000 from donors around the world to save this giant old water tank of mysterious origins from possibly being sold for scrap, and instead open it for use.
The acoustics inside the tank have attracted musicians including Grammy-winning vocalists Roomful of Teeth, who have used it for recordings and performances. The facility has drawn attention from media outlets including the British Broadcasting Corp., the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker magazine, in one hint of the different future that is in store for Rangely as it broadens its economic vision.
“It’s a fun anomaly,” said Elaine Urie, whose trucking company built the road up to the tank. “Who would have known, who would have guessed, that an old piece of iron would be so interesting?”
Added tank enthusiast Samantha Wade, “That’s the beautiful thing about life. It’s not always what it seems from the outside.”
Visitors who discover attractions like the sonic tank or Striegel’s auto museum might say the same thing about Rangely.