How to roll strikes in ‘Energy Alley’

With apologies to Mark Twain and his remark about the weather, everybody talks about the booms and busts of the western Colorado economy, but nobody does anything about them.

Well, it might be time to change that.

The Daily Sentinel began a series of news stories a week ago that look at western Colorado and eastern Utah from a slightly different perspective and take an inventory of the region’s energy resources. We called it “Energy Alley,” for the wealth of the uranium, coal, methane, natural gas and oil shale resources in this region. We also took note of the interest in alternative energy.

There may be other places that sit at a similar convergence of energy resources, but they are few. And they likely have something else in common with this area: They are also often the subject of large economic forces beyond their control, causing similar boom-and-bust cycles.

On Page 1 today, Jim Bartis of the RAND Corp. and Dr. Rod Eggert of Colorado School of Mines allude to the need for universities to take a greater role in dealing with the continuing development of Energy Alley.

Greater involvement of universities and research institutions in this arena is long overdue, and certainly welcome. Such institutions, however, need to be more than honest brokers in the development to come. Institutions need to have a long eye out for the future.

Twice in relatively recent memory, sudden and — with the advantage of hindsight, not-so-difficult-to-see — trends spun the local economy into a skid.

Without rehashing the debacle of 1982, it’s clear now that there were ignored or misunderstood signs pointing toward the imminent collapse of the oil shale economy.

Similarly, as recently as a year ago, people in western Colorado believed the region was well positioned to fend off the worst of the recession. And yet the recession came, slowed down the economy and dragged down employment.

It would be wonderful if we could tell readers when we might expect western Colorado’s fortunes to improve. But this region’s future is guided, as it has always been, by forces outside our control. It’s too much to say that those forces can be tamed. It is not too much to suggest they can be better observed.

When academics suggest that their institutions should be more involved, we think they’re on to something.

Mesa State College is perfectly placed in Grand Junction, in the middle of Energy Alley, to provide that kind of service.

While Mesa State’s primary mission is teaching, not research, the college has broadened its focus, working with the University of Colorado on a new engineering program on the Mesa State campus. The college also has looked to the future in setting up a curriculum for training landmen and for construction management, both of which have been of value to the energy industry.

It seems it’s time for the next step. Mesa State and other institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines, could do a service to the region by looking at the inventory of fuels and helping local governments, businesses and residents understand the implications of their development, perhaps even try to forecast the levels of interest in the energy sources that lay beneath the rough exterior of western Colorado.

It’s one thing, for instance, to recognize the size and value of the natural gas reserves of the Piceance Basin. It’s even more valuable to understand how those reserves fit into the fast-changing picture of the United States, now perceived as being awash in natural gas.

Fashionable as it might be to observe that oil shale is the fuel of the future and that future may one day arrive. We ought to be able to recognize it when it happens.

It’s said the nation needs a Manhattan Project-like effort to free it from the tentacles of foreign energy. It’s worth noting that the Manhattan Project also originated here, with uranium mined and milled in western Colorado.

Energy Alley needs not so much a Manhattan Project, but a center for energy economics and science that would help us all to prepare for the next time one of our energy resources begins a boom cycle. In fact, rather than importing scientists and technology experts from outside the region to help develop our resources — as has occurred so often in the past — we hope this region can become the headquarters for training those experts. With some of the programs mentioned above, Mesa State has begun moving in that direction.

We can’t say that these measures will allow us to predict the next boom or bust, or that we could do anything about it, but we might be able to more intelligently seize upon the resources that lie beneath our region.


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